Below is the response I sent to Italian journalist Nicole Martinelli, following the request at the end of her blog post.
Dear Ms Martinelli,
In the above article, you said you’d like to hear from an Esperantist why they took up the language and how they plan to bring it forward. Well, here goes.
Potted life history to start with: born 1973; British; university educated; have lived in the UK, France and Thailand; worked in language teaching and in computational linguistics; started Esperanto course in 2001, and now using it on a daily basis.
Why did I take it up? Originally for two reasons, both basically selfish — first, it struck me as an interesting idea (the fact that a language existed that was neutral, i.e. didn’t belong to any country, and that the process of learning it was promised to be much smoother, quicker and less painful when compared to other languages) and I wanted to try it just for the hell of it, whether it was ultimately any use or not; and second, because somebody showed me the “Pasporta Servo” (Passport Service), i.e. a list of names, addresses and contact details of Esperanto speakers worldwide who would put me up for a few nights, for the price of speaking Esperanto to them while I was there. Now, I do enjoy travelling, and the thing I enjoy most about it isn’t taking photos of “attractions”, but meeting local people and being able to talk, laugh, be entertained, flirt, etc. over a few beers until the small hours of the morning. And obviously, in most countries of the world, I don’t speak the local language, so all of this is rather difficult.
Enter Esperanto. Now, I don’t pretend that I can just walk into a bar in Warsaw, Havana, Lomé or Taipei and ask, “Excuse me, which table are the Esperanto speakers at tonight?” However, in all of those places and hundreds more, I can phone ahead and arrange to meet up with people, and, as I mentioned, get free accommodation into the bargain. (For a visual illustration of this, you can use this Google Earth file. You’ll need to install Google Earth first.)
Thus, in the last couple of years, on visits to Poland, Italy, Lithuania and France, I’ve had both free accommodation and interesting people to talk to.
So that was the second of my entirely selfish reasons for wanting to learn it. The first — exercising my brain, or mental masturbation if you prefer — was also more than fulfilled.
What are my plans for advancing Esperanto? Well, I’m only one person, and I’m not personally involved in every project that I’m about to mention, but this gives a flavour of what’s going on at the moment.
In no particular order then:
— Margarita Handzlik, a Polish member of the European Parliament, is a fluent Esperanto speaker, as is her husband, and they both actively promote the language in Strasbourg and Brussels (a “top down” part of the movement)
— this time last year, the fifth Nitobe Symposium met in the building of the Lithuanian Parliament, and brought together about 70 linguists, academics, intellectuals and policy makers, to discuss language policy in Europe and how it could or should move forward. Translation and simultaneous interpretation was provided in English, French, Lithuanian and Esperanto, and the conclusions can be found online by searching for “nitobe symposium”. (More “top down” action).
— on a more local level, there are thousands of local courses in hundreds of cities, towns and villages, certainly in every country in Europe and in many other countries across the world. Even if there isn’t one in your immediate vicinity, you’re welcome to try learning by yourself, either with cassettes/CDs (the Assimil method is popular) or online, with ikurso.net or lernu.net.* (“Bottom up” in action).
— Esperanto is also appearing in primary schools, thanks to the Springboard2Languages project, among others. (More “bottom up”).
— lastly, a movement whose annual “pow-wow” as you put it attracts more than 2000 people from 60+ countries is not a movement that’s in its death throes, whatever you might think of its goals.
*I mentioned earlier the claim that was made to me before I started learning — that I could expect to pick up the language significantly more quickly than I had with other languages I had studied. I have to admit to being a little skeptical about the claims, and some certainly were exaggerated; however, I did find that in only a few months, I had a power of expression over a range of subjects that had taken me much longer to acquire in French, German, Russian and Thai. After 18 months of study and practice, I was told that the emails I wrote in Esperanto were better than those that I wrote in French (fewer mistakes, fewer problems in comprehension, more nuanced expressions, jokes that actually worked, etc.), despite speaking French for 20 years and living in France at the time.
I’d like to offer corrections to a few misconceptions and factual errors in your article too, as well as an answer to a few of the open questions you ask.
You subscribe to the admittedly popular view that calling a language “artificial”, whatever that means, somehow dooms it to failure. Without getting into a debate about what the word means*, one only has to cite examples such as Modern Hebrew, Nynorsk or Bahasa Indonesian to show that a language whose grammar and basic vocabulary is the product of one person or a small working group has no problem at all in flourishing and becoming widely spoken in all human endeavours, without any noticeable handicap on the part of its speakers.
[*Many European languages are “artificial” to a greater or lesser extent. When the French, Spanish, German or Dutch language academies authorise a word, forbid another, modify spelling rules, change grammar rules, etc. is the result not at least partly artificial? And a century later, when daily use has cemented the “artificial” elements into the the “natural” language of the speech community, I have difficulty drawing a line between those modified languages and Esperanto, which today finds itself in the same situation. Certainly, the project as it was launched in 1887 was just that — a project, which may or may not one day grow into a fully fledged language — and undoubtedly artificial, albeit largely based on existing languages. A century and a bit later though, Esperanto is undoubtedly a language in its own right, and trying to come up with a definition of “a language” which would somehow exclude Esperanto usually also results in the mother tongues of millions of Israelis, Norwegians and Indonesians being excluded too.]
“There are said to be 1,000 ‘native’ speakers of Esperanto and you have to wonder what the parents were thinking.” Well, when my friend Arnaud made the decision to raise his three daughters as native Esperanto speakers, this is what he was thinking: “I’m French. My wife is French. Neither of us speak any other languages and we live in France. Is there any way that we can give our children the gift of bilingualism?” And having ruled out the possibility of moving abroad because of practical difficulties, the remaining option was to learn Esperanto and to pass that on to the children. Neither Arnaud nor his wife are particularly talented linguists; both have a good number of years of English tuition behind them, with the all-too-predictable mediocre results; and both used to work for a large German company where knowledge of German was encouraged, again with neither of them really having much of that language to show for it. However, with the Assimil cassette in the car every morning, they both reached a level where they felt confident enough to attend their first congress; after that they started using the language at home as much as possible; and now, Arnaud speaks nothing but Esperanto with his daughters, and both he and they are very happy with the results. He in no way feels restricted by the language, and has no problem in praising, scolding, discussing, reading stories, etc. with his daughters, just like any other parent; meanwhile they have a “secret” language that they can use between themselves at school if they want to!
“Italian news agency ANSA picked up just one small item about a study the Esperantists commissioned.” Factual error there (not sure whether your or ANSA’s — perhaps you might want to pass on the correction to them?) The study was not commissioned by “the Esperantists”. It was commissioned by the French governmental body for the evaluation of education in France (Le Haut Conseil de l’Evaluation de l’Ecole), and was carried out by Professor François Grin of the University of Geneva. There was no involvement by any organisation of the Esperanto movement, although it goes without saying that his conclusions certainly gave us something to talk about.
“The finding? English, the default lingua franca, costs the EU government €17 billion a year. That’s a lot of money lost in translation, to be sure. These costs could be cut out entirely, the study says, if there were a common European language.” That’s not exactly what it says. That €17 billion a year is what the UK gains from Europe by the use of English as the lingua franca. That particular anomaly would be removed if a neutral language were used instead of English, be it Esperanto, Latin or whatever. The report does not argue that translation between other EU languages should stop; that would be a whole separate debate.
“But how much time and money would it take to train everyone involved in the EU to communicate fluently in Esperanto?” Simple answer: far less than it would take them to speak any other language. In fact, I’d go even further than that: attaining a decent level of fluency in Esperanto is an achievable goal for the majority of Europeans. Achieving the same level in English is not. Decades of experience of language teaching in schools point to the conclusion that learning a national language is in fact an incredibly difficult thing to do, and one which most people fail at (certainly if the goal is to permit flowing conversation rather than just repeating memorised phrases), and I have a very hard time believing that yet another new teaching method is going to significantly change that. At the same time, decades of teaching and learning Esperanto, albeit on a much smaller scale, have repeatedly shown that people pick up the language and fly with it in a relatively short space of time.
“The bickering over official languages, with Globish as a common language, will no doubt continue.” Yep. You’re right there. 🙂
Anyway, if you’ve read this far through my incredibly long and perhaps occasionally rambling email, I hope you’ve enjoyed it and that it’s gone some way to answering your questions. If you’d like any further clarification (links, references, etc.) don’t hesitate to drop me a line.
 Erratum: it was the fourth, not the fifth Nitobe Symposium that occurred in Vilnius in 2005. I ought to add also that my description of the event is from my memory, not from any referenced information sources, so the number of participants and the list of working languages may not be exactly right. Mitigating, I would cite a lack of internet access at the time when I wrote the original message, m’lud.