Have you ever, in moment of frustration while learning a language, thought to yourself, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we all just spoke the same language?” You wouldn’t be alone in thinking that. L.L. Zamenhof also dreamed of a universal human language. He had experienced the divisive effect of language firsthand living in 19th century Białystok, Poland, where Polish and Yiddish were his family’s languages, Russian was the language of the government, and German and Lithuanian were the languages of many of his neighbors. He saw the breakdown in communication across these language groups and thought that people would better cooperate and understand one another if they shared a common language. The son of a talented linguist, he was able to speak several languages, but he saw that learning a new language was not so easy for others. And so he began working on his universal language project, with the goal of creating a language free of any political or cultural ties, which would also, crucially, be easy enough for anyone to pick up quickly. He published the first textbook for this language under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto in 1887 and so began the story of Esperanto, the most widely spoken constructed language on earth. 128 years later, you can attend conferences, read over 2,500 books, listen to the radio and communicate with a pen pal from countries all over the world in Esperanto. Zamenhof’s birthday, December 15, has become an annual celebration of Esperanto culture, and, most importantly, Esperanto literature. Many Esperantists celebrate the day by buying Esperanto books and attending Esperanto gatherings.
We at Living Language find constructed languages fascinating, thanks in large part to the excellent book written on the topic The Art of Language Invention by David J. Peterson, the creator of our Dothraki course. His book got us thinking about Esperanto, and with Zamenhof day around the corner, we decided to look more closely at an aspect of Esperanto that we find particularly interesting and relevant to what we do, which is what makes Esperanto so easy to learn compared with the natural (i.e. not constructed by an individual or group on purpose) languages Zamenhof learned growing up. (Keep in mind that to say a language is “easy” to learn is a highly subjective assessment which depends on what the learner’s native language is. Russian may be “hard’ for an English speaker, but comparatively “easy” for a Polish speaker, for instance.)
5 Reasons why Esperanto is easy to learn:
- Esperanto spelling makes sense.
In Small Time Crooks, Woody Allen’s character says “I’ve always wanted to learn how to spell Connecticut.” We know how he feels. English learners and native speakers alike have to endure learning how to spell using a system that is opaque and at times just plain bizarre. Esperanto learners, on the other hand, have it easy. There is a 1-1 correspondence between graphemes (letters) and sounds. The Esperanto alphabet has no q, x, w or y, and has 6 additional characters that make up a fully predictable spelling system.
- Esperanto has only 5 vowels.
If you’re a native English speaker, you might not appreciate this point fully, but imagine having to learn to pronounce the words coat, cut, caught, cot*, coot, kite, cat, kit, and Kate, and you’ll begin to see how great this 5 vowel system actually is for learners. If you speak Spanish, Modern Hebrew or Swahili, you’re in luck, because the same 5 vowels are used in these languages as well.
*Note that this word is not pronounced differently from caught in some regions of America.
- Esperanto has relatively free word order.
Esperanto adjectives can come before or after the noun they modify (verda arbo and arbo verda both mean “green tree”). Because Esperanto uses a simple case system which marks subjects and objects with nominative and accusative case markers respectively, subjects, objects and verbs can be put in any order (though subject-verb-object is the default order). Questions are marked with the interrogative ĉu at the beginning of the clause, so there’s no need to use a special word order. For instance, the statement: La pomo estas sur la tablo (The apple is on the table) can be made into a question by just adding ĉu as in Ĉu la pomo estas sur la tablo? Easy, right?
- Esperanto vocabulary is based primarily on the Romance languages.
This only makes Esperanto easy, of course, for those who already speak a Romance language, but if you do, you’ll find it easy to guess what the following words mean: Saluton, Pardonu min, Bonan matenon, amo and manĝi.
Did you guess “hello,” “excuse me/pardon me,” “good morning,” “love” and “to eat”? Ĝi estas facila!
- Esperanto lets you build up your vocabulary easily with suffixes, prefixes, and compound words.
Have you ever found yourself wanting to say the opposite of something you already know in your new language, but not knowing the word for it? You might end up saying the equivalent of “not X“ instead, and then generally the person you’re speaking with will stop, think a bit, then realize what word you’re searching for and provide it for you. In Esperanto, you can save yourself that awkward moment and just use the prefix mal- which means opposite of and make the word you’re looking for. So if you learned that good is bona, no need to learn bad separately, you can just say malbona. Esperanto has many other useful prefixes and suffixes that you can use to make words on the fly instead of having to memorize a whole new word.
If you’re learning a language that is not as easy as Esperanto, don’t despair! There’s reason to believe that noticing “hard” aspects of the language you’re learning could make learning those aspects easier, so the more you know about what makes languages easy or hard to learn, the better. Also, if you keep these 5 characteristics in mind next time you’re studying, you might be happy to realize that there are some “easy” things to learn in your new language as well since all languages have some “easy” characteristics as well as “hard” ones. So remember to focus on the positive and don’t give up on the hard stuff!