The invented language that found a second life online

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Duolingo can be used on a computer or mobile device, and has more than 200 million active users (Credit: Jose Luis Penarredonda)
More than 100 years after it was invented, Esperanto is spoken by relatively few people. But the internet has brought new life to this intriguing, invented language.

In a small house in north London, six enthusiastic young men are having their weekly language lesson. They are taking part in a 130-year old tradition that has survived war and scorn, chaos and oblivion, Hitler and Stalin.

They are not getting some practice in before a trip to a foreign country. The language they are learning will probably never help them get a job or buy groceries on a city break abroad – most of them only get to actually speak it once a week, in these lessons.

Yet, it is a full-fledged tongue, complete with poetry and profanities. Since it was first proposed in a small booklet written by Ludwik L Zamenhof in 1887, it has evolved into the quintessential invented language, the liveliest and most popular ever created.

But, many would tell you, Esperanto is a failure. More than a century after it was created, its current speaker base is just some two million people – a geeky niche, not unlike the fan base of any other obscure hobby.

So why are more people than ever trying to learn it?

From the League of Nations to Speakers’ Corner

Esperanto was intended to be the second language of the whole world, the only one people would learn other than their own. That’s why it is very easy to learn: all words and sentences are built from 16 basic rules that can fit within a sheet or two of paper. It doesn’t have all the confusing exceptions and modes of other languages, and its lexicon is borrowed from words in English, German, and some Romance languages, like French, Spanish, or Italian.

It was once seen as the language of the future. It was featured in the Exposition Universelle of 1900, in Paris, and soon caught wind among the French intelligentsia, who saw it as an expression of the modernist ideal of improving the world through rationality and science. Its regularity and ruthless logic fitted this world view – they were thought of as a more optimal tool for communication than ‘natural’ languages, all wrinkled with oddities.

Esperanto speakers have gathered in clubs since the first days of the language (Credit: Alamy)

Esperanto speakers have gathered in clubs since the first days of the language (Credit: Alamy)

But Esperanto was part of a bigger project. In the foundational pamphlet of the language, Zamenhof reasoned that if everyone spoke the same tongue, “education, ideals, convictions, aims, would be the same too, and all nations would be united in a common brotherhood”. The language was supposed to be named simply lingvo internacia, international language. But Zamenhof’s nom de plume "Dr Esperanto", the hopeful doctor, was a more fitting moniker. Its official flag is green and white, the colours of hope and peace. Its emblem is a five-point star, representing the five continents.

The idea built traction in Europe. Some speakers started to hold important public offices in several countries, and Zamenhof himself was nominated 14 times for the Nobel Peace Prize. There was even an attempt to establish an Esperanto-speaking land: Amikejo, a 3.5 sq km territory between the Netherlands, Germany and France. According to the linguist Arika Okrent, author of the book In the Land of Invented Languages, 3% of the population of 4,000 spoke the language – a proportion never achieved, before or after, in any other place.

A teenage George Soros was to be found preaching the Esperanto gospel in London’s famous Speakers’ Corner

Soon, the skinny and bearded eye doctor became something like the patron saint of Esperantio, the ‘nation’ of Esperanto speakers. They celebrate his birthday, 15 December, with special events all over the world. In later congresses, there were processions led by a billboard of his face, not unlike those made by Catholics on Good Friday. There are statues, streets and plaques remembering him all over the world, as well as an asteroid and a genus of lichen named after him. There is even a Japanese sect, Oomoto, that encourages the use of Esperanto and regards him as one of its many deities.

Even after World War One quashed the idea of Amikejo and pushed pacifist dreams to the background, Esperanto was thriving. It was proposed as the official language of the incipient League of Nations, but France blocked the idea. However, World War Two brought an end to all that. Both Stalin and Hitler prosecuted it. The former because he saw it as a tool of Zionism, the latter because he disliked its anti-nationalist ideals. Esperanto was spoken in the Nazi concentration camps – Zamenhof’s children were killed in Treblinka – and Soviet esperantists were sent to the Gulag.

Esperanto has been historically close to the pacifist and anti-fascist movements (Credit: Alamy)

Esperanto has been historically close to the pacifist and anti-fascist movements (Credit: Alamy)

Survivors started to organise again, but the movement was weak, and not taken seriously. In 1947, soon after a youth convention in England, a teenage George Soros was to be found preaching the Esperanto gospel in London’s famous Speakers’ Corner, a meeting place in Hyde Park usually reserved for conspiracy theorists and fringe activists. Perhaps going there was a simply a folly of youth, but he didn’t find a better platform. The billionaire-to-be soon quit the movement. 

A community is born

Learning Esperanto used to be a solitary quest. You could practise it by sitting for weeks with a book and a dictionary, figuring out the rules and memorising the words. But there was usually no professor to correct your mistakes or polish your pronunciation.

That’s how Anna Lowenstein taught herself Esperanto in her teenage years, after becoming frustrated with the oddities of the French she was learning in school. In the last page of her textbook, there was an address for the British Esperanto Association. She sent a letter, and some time later was invited to a meeting of young speakers in St Albans.

She was excited: it was her first trip outside London on her own. “I could understand what everyone was saying, but I was too shy to speak myself,” she remembers. Most of the other speakers were men in their 20s. The experience was powerful: Esperanto was a puzzle she had solved on her own, and now she was able to share it with the world. She slowly built her confidence and soon joined a group in north London; interested enough to bear taking three different buses to go to every meeting.

Today’s speakers can use the language every day online

The global community that Lowenstein was joining was put together via snail mail, paper magazines and yearly meetings. Away from the big politics and global ambitions of the old days, they built a culture based on the mere experience of having a common ground, on being “just people talking to people,” says Angela Teller, an Esperanto speaker and researcher. They met in conferences and became friends. Some met their partners there, as she did. Their children became native Esperanto speakers.

Newer generations are not as patient, and they don’t have to be. Unlike most of their elders, who rarely had the chance to speak Esperanto, today’s speakers can use the language every day online. Even old computer communication services like Usenet had Esperanto-speaking hubs, and a lot of pages and chat rooms sprouted in the early days of the Web. Today, the younger segment of the Esperantio is keen on using social media: they gather around several groups in Facebook and Telegram, a chat service.

Esperanto and the internet were a nice fit. The movement is very compatible with the cooperative ethos of the early days of the Web. Esperanto speakers tend to be committed to the cause, and saw their work as a contribution to it. Also, the internet was a natural meeting point for this geographically dispersed crowd.

The investor and philanthropist George Soros learned Esperanto from his father (Credit: Getty Images)

The investor and philanthropist George Soros learned Esperanto from his father (Credit: Getty Images)

“This is what online spaces are all about: re-adapting forms and projects in a new environment,” explains Sara Marino, a lecturer in communication at Bournemouth University. “The way in which it is coordinated is different: it is more immediate, it is cheaper and innovative. But the idea behind it is not new.”

All that made Esperanto one of the most overrepresented languages on the internet. To date, the Wikipedia page has some 240,000 articles in it, which puts it almost on par with the Turkish (a language with about 71 million speakers) or Korean (77 million speakers) versions. Both Google and Facebook have had an Esperanto version of their most popular products for many years, and some language learning services have appeared here and there. There is even a free hospitality service exclusive for Esperanto speakers called Pasporta Servo (passport service).

But the real revolution has been brewing in a most unlikely place.

A new platform

In 2011, Luis Von Ahn had an idea. He was the man who made the internet digitise millions of books for free by writing annoying captchas, so people listened to him. Giving a TEDx talk, he said he would translate the Web by teaching new languages to users. The tool by which he would do it would be named Duolingo.

Chuck Smith got excited. He learned of Esperanto while researching for a paper in college. He proposed to use it as a ‘bridge’ between two languages that don’t have a bilingual dictionary. It was a better solution than English, he says, because of its regularity and lack of exceptions. Still, his interest was purely technical: “I thought it would be an interesting language for computers to learn, but I thought it was a stupid idea for humans.”

They convinced us that there was demand for the course – Michaela Kron, Duolingo

He soon discovered Pasporta Servo, and suddenly learning it made more sense. It was only a matter of time before he became the founder of the Esperanto version of Wikipedia, and an enthusiastic advocate of the language online. For him, Duolingo “was poised to explode into something huge,” and Esperanto had to be there.

He sent an email to Von Ahn, a famed entrepreneur who had sold two companies to Google and refused a job offer from Bill Gates himself. He replied to the email that same day. The invented language was on the radar, he claimed, but wasn’t a priority.

The online members of Esperantio then got involved. They made noise, and the people behind the Duolingo app took notice. “They convinced us that there was demand for the course,” says Michaela Kron, a spokesperson for Duolingo. In 2014, the first version was released. The Spanish version was published later, a Portuguese one is being developed, and an update of the course in English is now in the works.

The German town of Herzberg am Harz has called itself "Esperanto City" since 2006 (Credit: Alamy)

The German town of Herzberg am Harz has called itself "Esperanto City" since 2006 (Credit: Alamy)

Smith led the team of 10 people who developed it, devoting some 10 hours a week for eight months. None of them were paid, but they didn’t care. Engaging in online activities often “gives people the feeling that they just need it, a sense of efficacy, a sense of being important and being helpful,” says Marino.

One of them was Ruth Kevess-Cohen, a doctor so enthusiastic about the language that, within a year, she went from learning it to teaching it. “The platform is extremely valuable, and the Esperanto community has received it for free,” she says.

Esperanto fits nicely in the Duolingo platform. The courses unfold logically, introducing a new word or concept with every step. Users can apply what they just learned to unveil new things, and everything follows a logical and deductive pace. This design makes it easy to progress, but makes it hard to change course to understand things like irregular verbs or weird declinations. Esperanto has none of these oddities.

Using the app is easy, and kind of fun. You can do a quick lesson on a five-minute break, or on your commute to and from work. If you use it constantly, your score improves and a small badge decorates your avatar. And if you have not opened it in a while, a green owl named Duo will appear on your phone and give you a gentle nudge. It doesn’t require a lot of effort, and that may have been the prompt for people who only had a mild interest in Esperanto.

The warm and comfy studio is framed by the filled bookshelves of a leftist idealist: Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxembourg, Lenin

It is the most effective recruiting tool this language has ever had. The app says that some 1.1 million users have signed up to do one of the Esperanto courses – half of the people who actually speak it. Some 25% of the people who start a course in Duolingo finish it, says Kron.

It does not mean that they have mastered the language, though. They still need to use it in real life to really wrap their mind around it; which brings us back to this house in north London. Most of the students here started to learn Esperanto with the app. Now, Lowenstein teaches them the little tricks you can only learn with practice.

There is a green star on the door; visitors are greeted by a tail whip from the house dog and a nice cup of hot tea. The warm and comfy studio is framed by the filled bookshelves of a leftist idealist: Marx, Engels, Rosa Luxembourg, Lenin. There are some books in Esperanto as well, and an orange copy of Thomas More’s Utopia. “It is a beautiful idea. Human solidarity, and world peace,” says our host, Eric Lee.

Of course, other students couldn’t care less – you can see traces of the old debate in this very room. There are people like James Draper, a “very scientifically minded person,” with little talent for languages, who decided to give Esperanto a go “out of sheer pragmatism.” It appeared the easiest foreign tongue to learn. Other pupils are just dedicated polyglots, who find Esperanto interesting, a useful tool for understanding the quirks of other languages.

There are many monuments, streets and squares named after Zamenhof all over the world (Credit: Alamy)

There are many monuments, streets and squares named after Zamenhof all over the world (Credit: Alamy)

They don’t have to agree – people engage in online spaces seeking many different things. It can be “some sort of individual or social gratification, or a sense of social inclusion, or a sense of civic engagement, or a sense of membership,” Marino explains. We should resist the temptation of making a cartoon of the average Esperanto learner, she says. “The individual and social motivations and benefits differ from person to person.”

But most of them do have something in common: a curious, open-minded, and good-spirited world view, where no one is a foreigner. Teller knew this years ago, when her children returned from an Esperanto camp. She asked them the usual questions: what did you do, who did you hang out with, where were your friends from. “We don’t know,” they said.

“The nationalities somehow disappeared into the background,” she says. “It's just like it should be.”

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