26 September 2009

Esperanto, or maybe cheeseburgers, will save us all

Thanks to Bill for commenting on the Notes on language post and reminding me about Esperanto, which merits a mention in any discussion of languages. Most people (including yours truly) seem to think of Esperanto mostly as a punchline, a signal of misguided, hopeless optimism and utter dorkiness. But it's really pretty frickin' cool, the more you think about it. Check out the Esperanto web site.

That said, I have to agree with Marjane Satrapi, Iranian/French graphic novelist and director (of "Persepolis" fame). In an interview with the now-defunct Rake magazine, she said:

In Iran if we speak a second language it’s English, not French anymore. English is the new Esperanto, which I really like. Some people complain “Oh, this is English culture,” but this is Esperanto. Everyone can speak this language, what does it matter. It’s a good thing whether it’s English or German or Japanese, if we all speak the same language it’s a good thing.

I'm all for Esperanto in theory: easy to learn, logical, etc. Sounds good. But the thing about English is, way more people already speak it. The groundwork is already set--it's easier to find other people who speak it, which makes it easier to learn. It's, well, useful. In many places even necessary. As discussed in that previous post, it's the world's relay language.

That's not to say we should expect or even encourage everyone to speak it. I worry about the culture-flattening effects of the rise of English, especially since it likely comes at the expense of other languages (and therefore cultures). But as Ms. Satrapi says, having some way for people around the world to communicate is a good thing. If that happens to be English, well, okay.

I'd also like to note that Ms. Satrapi--a worldly, cosmopolitan individual if ever there was one--is a big fan of Minneapolis's contribution to world cuisine, the Jucy Lucy (yes, that's how it's spelled). If you don't know, it's a cheeseburger with the cheese inside. Simple in concept, complex in execution, delicious in every way.

From this article in MinnPost:

"The first time I came here, the [cab driver] told me, 'Oh, I will bring you to a French restaurant.' And I was like, 'No, I'm here to eat what you eat. So what do you eat?' And he was like, 'Well, there's something here, it's kind of greasy, but [it's] the Jucy Lucy burger.' I was here three days. For three days, lunch and dinner, I had the Jucy Lucy burger. I tried to make one in France. All my friends in France know the Jucy Lucy burger of Minneapolis.

I'm so proud of my city.


  1. It's unfortunate that only a few people know that Esperanto has become a living language.

    During a short period of 122 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA World factbook. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, and a language choice of Google, Skype, Firefox and Facebook.

    Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

    Your readers may be interested in the following video. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670

    A glimpse of the language can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

  2. Brian: thanks for this info/clarification. I had no idea anyone was a native Esperanto speaker.

  3. With your permission, I'd like to provide a little mathematical food for thought.

    Some estimates put the number of Engish speakers (call this number "E") at 1.6 billion, of which about 350 million are native speakers (call this number "N") and 1.25 billion are second-language speakers (call this one "S"). Assume the cost of teaching the native speakers English is 0, and that the cost of teaching each of the second-language speakers is an average of H hours per person.

    In a large, stable group with P people and an average life expectancy of L years, we can expect P/L of the population to die off each year. To maintain the population, P/L people would need to be added to replace the P/L deceased. It turns out the world average life expectancy is about 65 years.

    Esperanto is several times easier to learn than English, whether for Indo-European or non-Indo-European speakers. Let's call the easiness factor "f", meaning that if it takes H hours to learn English, to a given level, it would take H/f hours to learn Esperanto to the same level. "f" is on the order of several times; for ease of calculation, let's assume f = 5 (although it's actually higher than that).

    Now, let's compare the cost of the current situation with English to that of moving to Esperanto as the international language. The cost of maintaining the status quo with English would be that of teaching English to the replacements for the deceased second-language speakers. Over a period of Y years, that would amount to S/L (deceased second-language speakers to be replaced each year) x H (hours per person to learn English) x Y, or HSY/L. For Esperanto, on the other hand, the cost would be that of teaching all E English speakers Esperanto, plus that of teaching the replacements for deceased Esperanto speakers. Over a period of Y years, that would amount to ( E (English speakers) x H/f (hours per person to learn Esperanto, 1/f the cost to learn English) ) + ( E/L (deceased Esperanto speakers to be replaced each year) x H/f x Y), or EH/f + EHY/fL = (1 + Y/L)EH/f.

    The interesting question is this: after how many years do the two total costs achieve parity, after which Esperanto would be a bonus? Just set the two equations equal to each other:

    HSY/L (for English) = (1 + Y/L)EH/f (for Esperanto)
    fSY/E = L + Y
    (fS/E - 1)Y = L
    Y = L/(fS/E - 1)

    Plugging in numbers, we get Y = 65/( ( 5 x 1.25 billion / 1.6 billion ) - 1 ) = 22.36 years. In other words, in just over 22 years, Esperanto becomes the cheaper solution, and continues to get cheaper.

    Each new person we add shifts the equation even more in favor of Esperanto, as each new person must spend H hours to learn English as opposed to just H/f hours to learn Esperanto. What would the total number of English or Esperanto speakers need to be for the total cost of English to equal the total cost of Esperanto after just 0 years? To obtain a total of B English speakers, the cost would be (B - E) (the difference between B and the current number of English speakers) x H, or (B - E)H. To obtain B Esperanto speakers, the cost would be B x H/f, or BH/f. Setting the two equal to each other, we get:

    (B - E)H = BH/f
    B - E = B/f
    B = E/(1 - 1/f)

    Plugging in numbers, we get B = 1.6 billion/(1 - 1/5) = 2 billion. In other words, for any number higher than 2 billion total speakers, it would be more expensive to teach just the newcomers English than it would be to teach everyone Esperanto (!).

    Just something to think about.

  4. It's nice to see an Esperanto supporter on random places. Cheers.

  5. Many speak English, that's true. But their command of the language is poor. After many, many years of learning English only 3% of learners achieve a level somewhat close to that of a native. The rest, 97%, are language cripplers. Is that the future we all want? I am all for Esperanto.


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