A few days ago I was hanging out in a coffee shop with my Russian friend. We meet every week to chat over coffee.
I don’t speak a word of Russian (excluding водка), and we’ve never spoken in English. In fact, I’ve never heard my friend speak English, except for the few words he uses when ordering coffee.
Esperanto is our language of choice.
He usually arrives before me, and is already sipping coffee during our “Saluton! Kiel vi fartas?” exchange. However, on this occasion I was the one catching the worm. On hearing his charmingly functional request for coffee, I was reminded again that despite knowing each other for a while now, we’ve never had a conversation in English.
Unsurprisingly the reason we haven’t is that we meet to practise Esperanto. We’re both fluent enough to be able to enjoy each other’s company for a few hours without the need of another language.
When I stop to think about that, it’s quite remarkable.
My friend and I have been learning Esperanto casually for about 2 years. I spend no more than 2 hours speaking Esperanto each week, except for 1-2 weeklong events each year. Ballparking the amount of time I’ve spent speaking Esperanto, it can’t be more than 2 months.
That isn’t a lot of time. It’s unlikely I could have made as much progress in a national language with that sort of casual effort.
Of course this isn’t surprising for anyone who knows anything about Esperanto. One of the design goals of the language was to be consistent and easy to learn, and if you ask me, there’s a very strong case to be made for it having hit that goal.
But, equality? What do I mean by the “equality” of Esperanto?
First, a quick detour. Have you heard of the Footbridge Problem?
Imagine you’re standing on a footbridge overlooking a train track. A small oncoming train is about to kill five people and the only way to stop it is to push a man off the footbridge in front of the train. This will kill him, but save the five people. Do you push him?
Logically speaking you would expect most people to answer yes. Saving five people by sacrificing one is the best of the options. But humans aren’t computers – we’re emotional and moral, and violating the moral belief that killing is bad can override the logical response.
And indeed, in a 2014 study, only 18% of people said they would push the man to his death to save the other five.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The 18% result was observed when people were faced with the dilemma in their native language.
When the question was asked to people in a foreign language (Spanish in this case), the number of people willing to push the man off the footbridge rose to 44%. The same study has been conducted in other language pairs with similar results.
The study concludes that thinking in a foreign language can create emotional distance compared to your native language(s), carrying with it the interesting implication that language may affect how utilitarian or how emotionally you respond.
As Nelson Mandela himself said:
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.
Our native language(s) are part of us, ingrained so deeply that words carry emotion in addition to meaning, and elicit from us emotional as well as rational responses.
While I could spend time learning Russian to speak to my friend, I would most definitely not be able to feel the language the same way he does as a native speaker. The ability to express myself through the language would require more effort, or even be limited depending on how much time I’d devoted, compared to his as a fluent native speaker.
The same would be true in reverse, of course. While my friend may be able to speak English fluently with me, it would be harder for him to bend and shape his language use to deeply express himself.
This doesn’t always hold true. There are people who master foreign languages to a deep level of fluency, where their identity is shared equally across different languages. Multilingual children are a good example. However, when we consider learning a new language, there’s a long road ahead in order to reach the stage where you’ll be on an equal footing to that of a native speaker. Often it never happens.
The thing I most enjoy about communicating in Esperanto is that this imbalance just doesn’t exist.
When speaking Esperanto, there’s never a sense that it’s my language, or the language of somebody else. It’s simply a tool I share with the person I’m talking to, who’s made the same effort I have in order to communicate on an equal footing. I instantly feel a sense of mutual respect that neither of us has burdened the other.
The effort coming from both sides makes the situation feel more equal. In addition, due to Esperanto being a much easier language to learn than any national language, you can find yourself having a very strong command of the language after just months (not years) of focused study.
It’s the very fact Esperanto is so simple that has enabled it to be so expressive. People from a diverse set of national language backgrounds speak Esperanto, so it’s important Esperanto can provide the flexibility in style and expression required for that.
The late Claude Piron, a well known Esperanto speaker and author, talks about this in his book La Bona Lingvo (The Good Language):
This mirrors my experience coming to realise that Esperanto is surprisingly expressive after a relatively short period of use. When there isn’t a shared language available, Esperanto serves its intended purpose as an auxillary language very well.
I love that I never feel like I’m speaking someone else’s language, nor that I’m speaking my own. Most importantly: everyone in the conversation is equally advantaged/disadvantaged in expressing themselves.
I have hung out with people from all over the world without a clue which languages they speak, never once feeling like I wasn’t equally equipped to express myself and be part of the conversation.
This sense of equality when using Esperanto has become a key reason the language is important to me, and just one of several attributes that make using Esperanto a unique and rewarding experience.