A review of “Esperanto: Learning and using the international language” by David Richardson

Esperanto book-cover

I found out about this book several years ago (and even then it was not new), but I first looked at a copy only a month ago. This review was written for those who wonder whether it is worth recommending, and for those who already know it but maybe interested in the opinion of others.

Language textbooks more or less fall into two camps: grammar-centric (for example, Step by Step in Esperanto by Montagu Butler) and direct-method (eg the books by Stano Marček). This book certainly falls more in the first, but the grammar is presented gently and not too theoretically. Instead, it introduces concepts with useful examples. For example, there is a small section, “formula phrases”: “Openers, adding on, keeping on, questioning, disbelief, agreement, disagreement, changing the subject”. Also useful are several exercise tables, which the reader can use to create sentences from given elements.

The texts in the last part of the book are excellent. Some original poems by Zamenhof are included, as well as excerpts from his letters about the creation of the language, and a brief biography. Among the other is a poem of William Auld (Drunkenness) and excerpts from On Bloody Earth by Julio Baghy. This part also contains English language keys for the lessons, dialogues and exercises, a four-page bibliography and an Esperanto-English dictionary.

One feature, probably unique among Esperanto textbooks, is a section at the beginning: “Communication and the Language Barrier”. Included in four chapters is that story of auxiliary languages, and a description of the current state of Esperanto in the world (in 1988): “Esperanto Today – and Tomorrow”. In addition to the fact that the book is now very out-of-date, it would be better – in my opinion – if the background material were much shorter, or placed in an appendix.

Although the copy that I read is described as the “third edition”, with the exception of the dustcover (which incidentally mentions the internet on the flap) in fact is just a second reprint. It would be great if someone would rework the book for the 21st century.

“Esperanto: Learning and using the international language”
Author: David Richardson
First edition: 1988 (Reprinted 1990, 2004)
Publisher: Esperanto League for North America
Format: 368 pages, 22 cm
ISBN: 0939785064
Available at the book services of Esperanto USA (www.esperanto-usa.org/retbutiko) and UEA

[First published in “Esperanto sub la Suda Kruco” (Australian Esperanto Association), December 2016]

The desire to connect

I’ve been re-reading a book, “What Makes Us Tick?” by Hugh Mackay (Hachette, 2010). Here are a few favourite quotes from chapter 4, “The desire to connect”:

“The Russian literary critic, Viktor Shklovsky, wrote that ‘art exists that one might recover the sensations of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.’ ”

“ ‘A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,’ Franz Kafka once wrote to a friend. He was talking about reading, but the metaphor can be extended to our experience of any art form, and works even better when we apply it to our own creative output. Once we embark on the creative process, we may find we are connecting with ourselves in ways that surprise us. ‘Where did that come from?’ might well be a sign that we’ve cracked the frozen sea within us.”

“If we only consume and never create, there’s every chance we’ll become jaded in our responses to the arts, increasingly hard to please, too worried about the ‘meaning’ and ‘value’ of the work. Create something yourself and such questions either dissolve or evolve into a more sympathetic appreciation of the power of the arts to connect us to ourselves.”

Beautiful Esperanto lullaby


My choir, Jubila Singers, sang a beautiful lullaby in Esperanto during a performance on 13 September, although I’m the only member who speaks Esperanto. It’s title is “Sweet Wind”.


(Switch to the Esperanto version to read the lyrics.)

Music by Joseph Barnby.
Thanks to Alan Bishop for providing the score.
Thanks to Christine Lindsay for the sound recording and photo.

Art appreciation at the World Esperanto Congress

The program for the World Esperanto Congress in Lille has been published but, unfortunately, the “Congress Theme” sessions lack details. So, I want to announce that “Congress Theme 2” (Monday, 11:15–13:45) will include two lectures by Franz-Georg Rössler – about architecture (towers) and music – and a lecture by me. Mine will be “Art-appreciation for everyone”. Summary: “For many people, appreciating art is hard. This presentation will explore some of the obstacles to the understanding and enjoyment of art, myths and half-truths about art – for example, ‘Everything is subjective.’ It will also offer ways to find your own authentic responses to art.”

9,600 people have started learning Esperanto in two days

[This is my translation of an article in Esperanto, 9.600 homoj eklernis Esperanton en du tagoj], from the website Libera Folio.

Two days after the launch of an Esperanto course at the popular language learning site Duolingo, the course has already gained almost ten thousand participants. The number of students, then, is almost twice as big as the number of individual members of UEA [the World Esperanto Association], although the course still is not even officially launched, but is in its test phase.

The founder of Duolingo, Luis von Ahn, mentioned in a lecture given in 2012 that most of the proposals for language courses to be added to the site were, for some reason, for Esperanto. Hearing this, Chuck Smith of Berlin immediately contacted von Ahn. And the answer was that Esperanto was indeed in the plan, but that other languages had priority.

Eight months ago, work began to create a course in Esperanto. Chuck Smith became the leader of the 5-person team, and Ruth Kevess-Cohen of the United States was chosen as the main person responsible for the course.

The course opened in test phase on Thursday 28 May at 8pm mid-European time. After less than two days, the course already had 9,600 participants, although it has not yet been actively advertised.

‘We simply sent the information to our “internal” groups. So, before the launch 26,000 people asked to be notified when the course started. In addition we put announcements in the Facebook group “Duolingo English Learners” and a Reddit group for Duolingo. Because we’re in a test phase, we’re trying to not have too many users, but of course everyone is welcome,’ says Chuck Smith.

The language-learning philosophy of Duolingo differs from most other online courses. The basic idea is that you have to translate more and more difficult sentences, and thereby gradually understand, how the language works.

‘Each group of lessons has some explanations, but we ask students to firstly just try the course before reading the explanations. If a sentence is difficult, each sentence has its own thread in which they can ask questions and then either one of the other students or a contributor will respond.’

Many of the more than nine thousand students must have joined the course just out of curiosity, to see what this strange language is, Chuck Smith assumed.

‘An interesting effect of the course is that many people do one lesson just to try out this strange language and then can’t stop and simply continue…’

Out of the 9000+ adherents, four even have finished the whole course (or “tree”, according to the terminology of Duolingo) within one day. One of the finished learners, Jules, told about his experiences in a forum of Duolingo:

‘The number of initial lessons of the Esperanto-tree flew past quickly, and made me believe that all the language would be just as easy. I know it’s reputed to be an easy language to learn, but we must however remember that it is a language, and learning a language isn’t easy.’

In the middle of the course Jules felt a bit frustrated because of the many affixes that needed to be memorised, but he decided to continue, and gradually learning became easier and enjoyable.

‘I think I’ll try to keep my new knowledge about this fascinating language. Its vocabulary is very similar to the other Romance languages, with small additions of German and even Greek here and there. The purpose of this language is to bring people together around the world and promote peace, and this probably motivated me to complete the course. So, I give a big thank-you to the Esperanto team for their great work, because they’ve created an excellent course (and also with some of the best sentences I have ever seen !!) and I hope everyone else will enjoy learning this language.’

‘At the moment one can learn Esperanto at Duolingo only via English, but it’s not impossible that other languages could be added later,’ says Chuck Smith.

‘Nothing is certain about languages other than English, but the plan is to analyse the results of our course when it has “stabilised” (no longer in test phase) and then see if it’s worth doing it from another language, and if so, which language would be most appropriate. This could be judged according to various criteria such as requirements of the community, quantity and quality of candidates and so on. The likelihood that they will add a language course will grow if more people join as contributors to Esperanto.’

Already two days after the launch of the test version, the Esperanto course at Duolingo has not only fascinated more than nine thousand students, but also received a good deal of public attention. In addition to mentions on social networks, an extensive article appeared on the website “The Verge”.

Chuck Smith had no contact with the UEA on the course during the eight-month preparatory period – but, according to him, it’s not clear how the association could help anyway. On the other hand, the team reached a agreement with TEJO [the youth section of UEA], which promised to send “Kontakto” [TEJO’s monthly magazine] free of charge to new students at Duolingo.

Libera Folio: What generally happens when one finishes the course; do the learners receive information about how they can use the language?

Chuck Smith: ‘There is a bonus course about Esperanto culture, which explains a lot, but for technical reasons, it will appear later. In the official forum of Esperanto at Duolingo you sometimes hear about cultural issues, but I imagine that one will hear more when the community there matures further.’

Unwrapping art: the basics

people looking at art

Enjoy art, but not sure how to approach it? Like an artwork but not sure why, or if there’s more to it? Come along to my short introductory course at the Art Gallery of NSW, Unwrapping art: the basics, over 4 Saturdays, 16 May – 6 June 2015.

While art from many different times and places will be presented, my approach will be based more on ideas rather than traditional art history.

For more information and to book tickets, visit the Art Gallery of NSW website.

The dangers of assumption

Many years ago, when I worked for the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I ran a travelling art service called “Onsight”*. I took art exhibitions to people for whom a visit to the Gallery would be difficult or impossible, for example, to prisons, hospitals and nursing homes. One day, I visited a nursing home in a northern beaches suburb of Sydney. I set up the exhibition and then spoke with some residents about the artworks. After lunch, a nurse pushed a very old, fragile woman in a wheelchair into the room. Despite the fact that the woman did not look up at the paintings, I approached and began to speak. Almost immediately the nurse said to me, ‘Don’t worry about her, she’s out of it.’ I wondered, then why did she bring the woman in! I said to the nurse, ‘I’d be happy to push her for a while; have a break.’ So she thanked me and left.

I pushed the wheelchair and tried to talk to the old woman about the paintings, but I soon learned that she either didn’t understand anything, or else was not at all interested in art. So I said to her, ‘It looks like art isn’t your ”thing”. So, what does interest you?’ I didn’t expect an answer but after a short pause she said, ‘Oh, hang-gliding, abseiling, bungee-jumping…” I was momentarily silent with amazement, and thought, ‘Is she really joking with me?’ But her humour intrigued me, so I asked some more. I learned that she was the second woman in New South Wales to pilot a plane! So, she probably did those other things, too.

Now I understood: Here was a woman who previously had a very exciting, active life, but now had very little freedom and mobility. I was not at all surprised that she wasn’t interested in the paintings. No matter; I was happy instead to listen to stories about her amazing adventures. After about twenty minutes, when it was almost time for the nurse to return, the woman looked at the paintings, and one in particular. ‘I like that one,’ she said.

Then the nurse came back. It was time for the old woman to go back to her room.

Afterwards, I thought about what had happened. If I had assumed – because the woman originally showed no interest in art – that talking with her was not worthwhile, I would never have learned about her amazing life. And she would not have enjoyed (even if only slightly) one of the paintings. I wonder if the nurse ever discovered that I was actually able to communicate with the “mental incompetent” despite her advice.

* “Onsight”: a playful hybrid of the words “onsite” and “on sight”

Three short talks for “Art on screen”

Poster: A girl with a pearl earringOver the next few months I will be introducing three art-related films at Avoca Beach Picture Theatre with three different 20-minute talks on art appreciation:

Monday, 2 March, 11.30am: A girl with a pearl earring and other treasures from the Mauritshuis Museum Netherlands
My talk will focus on the paintings of Vermeer and other artists in the Mauritshuis.

Monday, 20 April, 11.30am: Vincent van Gogh – a new way of seeing (from the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam)
In my talk I will try to get behind the legend of the ‘tortured genius’ and see the art of Van Gogh with fresh eyes.

Monday, 1 June, 11.30am: The Impressionists (from the Musée du Luxembourg Paris, National Gallery London and Philadelphia Museum of Art)
My talk will focus on the significance of the French Impressionists, how they changed the course of art forever.

Price for each session:
Adults: $23
Seniors: $19

An open letter to Gaston Dorren, the author of “Lingo”

A book called Lingo: A language spotter’s guide to Europe has recently been published. Chapter 51 is titled “The no-hoper: Esperanto”. As has already been reported, it has received some flak from Esperantists.

Here is my open letter to its author, Gaston Dorren:

Dear Mr Dorren,

I know you have received a number of messages by disgruntled Esperantists about chapter 51 of your book, ‘Lingo’, and probably the last thing you want now is another one. However, while I am a (sometimes) speaker of Esperanto, and while I do have issues with that chapter, I hope that you will find my points reasonable and worth considering.

You list a series of reasons why Esperanto is much more complex than it needs to be, particularly for Anglophones, and therefore, why it has failed to catch on as the universal language.

1. Cases.

There are only two cases in Esperanto (German has four). English and French do have cases, with pronouns (e.g. “I love her.” “She loves me.”). Esperanto just applies them consistently.

Having these two cases allows Esperanto to have a more liberal word order and less accidental ambiguity. E.g. In English we might say “He received him as a prince,” leaving it unclear whether “as a prince” relates to the subject or object. However in Esperanto we can differentiate between the two: “Li akceptis lin kiel princo” (He received him as a prince would receive him), or “Li akceptis lin kiel princon” (He received him as he would receive a prince).

But, yes, remembering to add “-n” for the object of a sentence is probably the one aspect of Esperanto that gives native English speakers the most trouble. But it is far from insurmountable.

2. Adjectival agreement: e.g. “bela knabino” (beautiful girl) becomes “belaj knabinoj” (beautiful girls).

Adjectival agreement is not really all that ‘odd‘. I believe French, Spanish, Hungarian and Swahili have it too, and it is applied in these languages in a much more complex way than in Esperanto. Again, it allows Esperanto a more liberal word order and less accidental ambiguity.

You then write ‘the article [la] remains unchanged [for plural]… As far as I’m aware, not a single European language does likewise.’ Doesn’t this contradict your call for simplicity, and specifically your criticism of Esperanto’s adjectival agreement?

3. Participles: ‘In natural European languages, participles tend to come in two varieties: an active… and a passive… Esperanto verbs have six…’

Yes, this is true. However, most of these forms are not used in practice. In fact, participles in general are not used as much in Esperanto as in English. E.g., a literal translation of “I was talking,” is “Mi estis parolanta.” But most Esperanto speakers would simply say “Mi parolis,” which can also be translated as “I spoke.”

I note that you write ‘The Esperanto verb has some nasty tricks up its sleeve.‘ Yet the only example you give is the one above, about participles.

4. Embedded tenses: ‘Rather than “She wrote that she would return,” the Esperanto equivalent translates as “She wrote that she will return” – unremarkable to Eastern Europeans but anomalous to Western ears.’

Exactly, unremarkable. And much more logical and easy to remember when you think about it. Esperanto just makes no distinction between indirect and direct speech, whereas English does.

5. Difficult sounds: ‘[Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto] should have limited consonants to the dozen or so that people all over the world can pronounce, while discarding consonant clusters altogether.’

If a language were to limit itself to around a dozen consonants, and no consonant clusters, it would severely limit its ability to assimilate words from other languages, and so make them more recognisable. Volapük, a predecessor of Esperanto, had a relatively restricted phonology, and thus many borrowed words became unrecognisably distorted. E.g. “pük” (language), which was apparently derived from the English word “speak”.

6. Adverbs: ‘German elegantly substitutes adjectives for them.’

The ability to distinguish between an adverb and an adjective, when combined with liberal word order, allows you to say, e.g., “Knabo rapida kuras” (A quick boy runs) or “Knabo rapide kuras” (A boy runs quickly).

7. Gendered pronouns: ‘Hungarian manages perfectly well with only one word for “she”, “he” and “it”.‘

The Esperanto word for “it” is “ĝi”. Although Esperanto speakers don’t normally use “ĝi” for people, the taboo is much less against this than for using “it” for people in English.

I hope I have adequately refuted, or at least challenged, your arguments that Esperanto is unnecessarily complex and/or difficult to learn. However, on page 242 you also make some very surprisingly subjective statements about the language:
– ‘For speakers of French, Italian and Spanish, “la viro” sounds plain wrong.‘
– ‘“knabino” looks masculine…’
– ‘“knabinoj” is a word hardly compatible with anything of beauty…’
These expressions of personal opinion do nothing to strengthen your argument. Similar subjective criticisms were made against Esperanto as early as 1907, mainly by speakers of French. These critics wanted Esperanto to become more ‘naturalistic’ (i.e. similar to Romance languages) at the expense of consistency and ease of learning. The result was a series of now largely forgotten breakaway languages.

Your basic premise seems to be that Esperanto has failed to be universally taught and accepted because of its unnecessary complexity. And, as a corollary, that English is the de facto world language because it is ‘learner friendly’. Both of these claims are false: Resistance to Esperanto does not occur because it should be, say, six times faster to learn than an average ‘natural’ language rather than just five times faster. And the reason why the teaching of English is currently so widespread is not because it has no cases (excluding pronouns), no adjectival agreement and only two participial forms. Unfortunately the expansion or otherwise of languages has more to do with power – both political and economic – than factors such as learner-friendliness or philosophical ideals.

Regarding the hopefulness or otherwise of Esperanto speakers, I don’t personally know of anyone who seriously believes that Esperanto will become the universal auxiliary language in his or her lifetime. But seeing the language in action as I have, such as at a major international conference, is a powerful demonstration that there is still some cause for hope. As has been said many times, in many contexts, it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Jonathan Cooper

UPDATE: 9 January 2015

Gaston Dorren’s reply follows. (For some reason, this website doesn’t allow comments to be left on blog posts, only pages. So, until I can work out how to safely fix that, I have just copied it from a document that the author has sent me.)

Dear Mr Cooper,

Thank you for doing me the honour of posting an open letter in response to my thoughts about Esperanto, which I realise are somewhat provocative. Allow me to review your points one by one.

1. Cases
We seem to agree here: learning two cases is far from insurmountable, but it is something that gives native speakers of English (as well as French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish and many other languages) trouble. In my experience, speakers of these languages tend to find case at first bewildering and then permanently annoying. Apparently, they don’t find it easy to transfer their intuitive understanding of pronominal cases to nouns and adjectives.
By the way, even caseless languages can still have a ‘liberal word order’, as Dutch illustrates. And while case can certainly avoid ambiguity, I think it is a high cost compared to the occasional benefit.

2. Adjectival agreement
I do not claim that adjectival agreement is at all odd. Actually, I can’t offhand think of any Indo-European language other than English that does not have it, so this aspect of Esperanto grammar should be manageable (though I’m not convinced it’s really necessary). What I do find odd is that the article la is an exception to the rule that nouns, adjectives and determiners are inflected for number (-j) and case (-n). It would be more intuitive to have laj belaj knabinoj as the plural la bela knabino. I’m sure one gets used to this pretty soon, but an exception in a language largely free of exceptions is surprising.

3. Participles
Your observation that most of these six forms are not used in practice seems to bear out my suspicion that six participles are more than most speakers can comfortably handle. In response to your observation that I give only one example to substantiate my claim that ‘The Esperanto verb has some nasty tricks up its sleeve’, I can only plead guilty. There used to be another example: the jussive mood. Unfortunately, the editor considered it too arcane. That is exactly how I felt about it, but that to my mind, this very arcaneness made it a good case in point.

4. Embedded tenses
We seem largely to agree here. I’m not sure if logic has anything to do with it, but undoubtedly the rule is easy to remember. Whether it is also easy to apply, I couldn’t tell.

5. Difficult sounds
This is a tough issue. I appreciate your point about Volapük. Admittedly, my suggestion to give Esperanto as few phonemes as possible is too radical, as it would have led to vocabulary being harder to learn, at least for speakers of most European languages.
Having said that, I still think that Zamenhof, on the other hand, has erred on the side of phonological complexity. I’m pretty sure that many Spaniards have cursed his decision to include initial clusters such as sp- (they can’t help saying ‘esp-’ – thank goodness the language is not called Speranto, as Italians would expect) and that many French, Italian and Spanish Esperantists have despaired over the difference between h and ĥ.
Perhaps there was no way for the great man to solve this problem in a way satisfactory to all. Between Scylla and Charybdis, there was just no water left to sail.

6. Adverbs
Your point is obviously correct, but why should liberal word order be so important? In very general terms, word order and inflection are two ways to clarify sentence structure, but even inflected languages tend to gravitate toward one basic word order; the alternative word orders are then more marked varieties, emphasising this or that part of the statement. Zamenhof chose to make Esperanto a more inflected language than strictly necessary. As with case, adverbial endings make the language freer, but also more difficult to learn. I should have thought that keeping it simple must be the top priority.

7. Gendered pronouns
Here, I’m afraid your counterargument does not convince me. ‘Less of a taboo’ suggests that the use of ĝi is still considered inelegant or impolite or otherwise not done. However, I do appreciate that most languages do make the distinction. Also, in Zamenhof’s pre-feminist days, the need for an gender-neutral pronoun must have been less acute than it is in our time.

As for my ‘surprisingly subjective statements about the language’: you’re perfectly right. But as they are very obviously subjective, I hope the reader understands that I’m just having a bit of fun with Esperanto here. If you have read the rest of the book (which is after all this chapter’s natural habitat, the context needed to understand it properly) you will know that I’m taking the mickey out of many languages, including French, English, Italian and my native Dutch.

If there is one thing that I regret about the chapter, it is that I’ve overstated the role of Esperanto’s intricacies – which are comparatively few, of course – in its failure to become an auxiliary world language. Again, we agree here: political and economic power are the main determining factors (and I would add sociolinguistics). I do not, by the way, claim that English is ‘learner-friendly’, but only that it is the most learner-friendly among those that Zamenhof was familiar with. See chapter 60 for more about the horrors of the current world language.

Finally, I very much appreciate your realistic outlook regarding the prospects of Esperanto in the coming decades. At least one dedicated Esperantist who has recently bombarded me and even my publisher with her protests was convinced that most of the speakers are hopeful about Esperanto’s future.

Thank you for this stimulating exchange of ideas.

With very best wishes,
Gaston Dorren