Sunday, 11 April 2010

Language, natural and artificial

I had a couple of thought provoking comments left on this blog by an Esperantist the other day. First of all, I'd like to thank him for his interest and compliments. I've left them on as, whilst I don't see Esperanto as being of any genuine use, there's probably no harm in it and his blog is nothing akin to porn spamming anyway!! Anyone interested just needs look at former posts' comments to get the link. Anyway, it got me thinking about natural, as opposed to artificial, languages and why I would learn one and not the other and, at the end of the day, what one learns languages for.

Language is a means of communication and learning another language enables one to communicate with speakers of that other language, be they mother tongue ones or other learners like oneself. Our class situations here are a good example. We all communicate with the teacher in Chinese and tend to talk to Eastern students in Chinese outside of class as well as the best common language. Most Western students tend to speak good English though, so white folk tend to be seen communicating in English outside of class time. Having said that, we're none of us really learning Chinese in order to be able to speak to other Chinese language learners, we're planning on using it with native speakers. And that's why I've never seriously considered learning an artificial language - there are no native speakers of it.

There are also no territories where the language is generally spoken, even as any sort of official tongue. Anyone who uses it to communicate is doing so with another learner and in a non-native environment. Not only would that be totally unconducive to producing fluency, it's also, well, somewhat pointless! Let's face it, Esperanto is never going to take over as the world's lingua franca. Many people have never even heard of it, never mind have years of school classes in it. English, on the other hand.....

So, whilst I see being multi-lingual at any level as being excellent, I don't see any point to adding an artificial language to my repertoire. Whilst there are societies and so forth for these languages, they're little beyond clubs and common interest groups, like philatelists or something like that. It makes no real impacts on society as a whole and, whilst I'm told that many Esperantists are humane vegetarians etc, that kind of interest in others is by no means limited to proponents of artificial languages - there are millions of vegetarians and/or humane people the world over (myself included, I hope!), and I doubt quite severely that Esperanto, or any other artifical language, will make any real contribution to world peace etc. Actually, only God's Kingdom can achieve that, so any human effort of any type is bound to fail, as history only too ably bears out!

'The best way to expand interest in foreign language is Esperanto." So claimed my visitor. I have to disagree - vehemently! The best way to develop interest in other languages is to nuture an interest in people and in communicating with them. The best way to reach the heart is to talk to someone in their mother tongue - the language of their heart. As Esperanto has zero mother tongue speakers, it is consequently at the very bottom of the list for anyone with a real interest in reaching and warming hearts.

And so back to the real language world:

I decided against re-taking the TOP at intermediate level this time around as I just don't feel ready for it and would almost certainly fail and waste NT$1000, (about £20). I'm going to try for it in November instead, just before we leave Taiwan and hope to get a decent pass then.

Classes are a bit harder now as I'm up in Level 6 now doing a course in newspaper reading. Taiwanese newspapers are written in highly formal style, which means learning the formal words for such things as 'and', 'to be', 'to go' and many, many others! It's like having to re-learn the language in many respects! I chose this one as I really wanted to make myself read more as I tend to be very impatient with reading in any other language and skim, skip and wimp out, especially in Chinese - even though I could do quite well if I took the time! Laziness really, but I'm hoping to get over that to some degree by improving the skills and, in turn, the confidence needed to do a better job of it. It's not what I'd been expecting though, as I thought it would be like news reporting anywhere else - more like ordinary speech. I'm glad to have a 3 month introduction to this style of language, but I've changed my mind about going on to do books 2 and 3 afterwards as I see little real use for me when I finish here and go home. Even here, I wouldn't be that likely to read local newspapers, (I get my news from the BBC website and occasionally, the ICRT website - the local English language radio station), and I'm certainly not going to read TW newspapers at home! So, next term, I'm going back to Level 5 and the more general stuff there.=) It's mostly literature, business and finance related stuff and so on from Level 6 on and that's not what I'm here for.

We plan to leave here in late November/early December, when our last term's visas run out. We hope to go back to Europe via a bit of South-East Asia, but we have to see about that later on. After that, and getting re-settled at home, I plan on taking the UK Open University's language courses, first in German (I've already done their intermediate course, which is post GCSE and is meant to finish at CEFR Level B1, which I was delighted to get a distinction in), so I plan to start off with the course that leads to B2 level, even though it's rather pricey at about £1000. I don't actually see why OU language courses are so expensive as there are no more special resources than other courses, but such is life and, if one wants the course, one has to pay for it!

The other downside is that, remembering my last course with them, I felt a bit like I was kind of 'top of the class' and during the oral exam, I found myself doing much of the talking in the group assessment (albeit unwillingly, as I didn't want to look like I was monopolising things) just in order to keep it going! Anyway, I suppose I'd been learning a lot longer than they had and had had much more practise in school classes, with penpals and, now, with husband and in-laws than they had. It's always nice to have a 'worthy foe' in your class though - someone who challenges you to keep up! My current Chinese class is full of them, which leaves me in the position of feeling like I'm near the bottom! I'm not used to that, so it's a bit depressing!!!!=) Last term, my hubby and I were top getting 90+% in tests whilst many of the others (mostly Japanese), were getting 60's and 70's%. Ego trips!!!

Anyway, all that wanting to be top of the class, big-headed and pointless pap aside, I really need to improve my German as a way of developing better and smoother communication with my in-laws and others we know in Germany. It's all too easy to just rely on what I already know and/or on their English skills, but that's just lazy and selfish and besides which, I always encourage those with a foreign marriage partners to make sure and learn that language, no matter how good their partner's English/Chinese/whatever is. It shows an interest in that person and their background, if nothing else. So, whilst I've learned German for a total of about 8 school years and can do OK with it, there is room for improvement and so, I need to put my money where my mouth is and get back to it! Sir and I are also both very interested in Spanish, especially as we may spend some time in Spain helping with Bible teaching in Chinese at some point and so being able to chat with the locals would be make the whole experience much better for everyone.

How much use would Esperanto be in either of the above situations, (ie marriage and sacred service abroad?)? NONE! How much in helping me deal with real-life situations on the streets here in Taiwan? NONE! How much in helping one get work in the real business world? NONE! Good use of time? I'm inclined to think not....

I've been reading the 'Teach Yourself Linguistics' book in fits and starts, but I think I really need to re-read it in order for it to 'stick' better. Next time around, I'll make (or post) notes, which usually aid memory and comprehension, no? I also have 'Becoming a Translator' with me, which is a very interesting book that I hope to work through as well. Although I no longer have any real ambitions in that direction, I remember this book having a lot of info about the translator as learner and so on - things about language use, and that's always interesting.


Brian Barker said...

Where did you receive the information that "Esperanto will never take over the World" ?

Personally I think that this sort of arrogance has held Esperanto back !

Elizabeth Braun said...

I would have left the following on Brian's own website/blog, but that it requires an e-mail address to be left and I don't want that.

Of course Esperanto will not 'take over the world'! There is very limited interest in it with an estimated 100,000 - 2 million learners/speakers (0.0015% and 0.03% of the global population). That's not arrogance, that's just facts!

Someone like me who, whilst being a native speaker of the global first language is actively involved with a number of other languages, which would enable me to speak with approx 50% of the global population, can hardly be accused of arrogance, holding languages back or even of being a proponent of everyone learning English! What complete nonsense!

Esperanto has made no real inroads into everyday life for quite other reasons than the other at least 99.97% of the world who have no active interest in it being arrogant!

I think constructed and artifical languages could be a fascinating study and a really intriguing idea, but I'm not blinded by any field of study to the point of losing a grip on reality!

I plan on posting some further info on artificial langauges and so on in the near future - after I've done some more reading and research, but the research will be done in places with neutral reportage!

Elindomiel said...

One of my friends started learning Esperanto. Before that she had only learned Latin, so it was something new and exciting for her to actually be able to speak a foreign language. It served as a stepping stone for her, and now she is learning Polish and is thinking about starting other spoken languages as well. She still enjoys Esperanto, because it ties her into her social group - she has many friends who speak Esperanto, goes to Esperanto conferences, and can have penpals all over the world who connect with that common interest. So, I think Esperanto can have good functions - it can be a social networking tool, of sorts, among the Esperanto Community. And it can serve as a stepping stone as it did for my friend. That said, I agree with many of your points and don't feel that it would be the best use of my time to learn Esperanto.

Elizabeth Braun said...

I think this experience sums up quite well what I meant - that Esperanto, in real terms, is a social club. The girl mentioned here found an interest in others' languages because she found an interest in people, however that came about.=)

I used to do a lot of penpalling in my late teens and early 20s. I wrote in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and tried Portuguese and Dutch as well!=)

Rachel Cotterill said...

Thank you for reminding me that you have this blog as well - I think you're right, I did find this one first, but I mostly see posts on your embroidery blog (and have been so busy recovering from my holidays, that I just had to clear out 1000+ unread posts from my reader!)

I've never wanted to learn Esperanto, I honestly don't see the point in creating an artificial 'lingua franca'. The world language of the future may be English, it may be Chinese, but whatever may come around will evolve organically IMO.

On the other hand, I've invented a couple of languages for the books that I'm writing. I doubt anyone will ever bother to learn them ;)

neil.nachum said...

Thank you Elizabeth for your dialogue. It is more than most multilingual college professors usually provide. (There are however numerous professors who speak Esperanto and the University of San Marino, Europe regulary grants degrees in and about Esperanto).

The advocation of Esperanto is the reason I speak Spanish, Hebrew (a revived language by Ben Yehuda-with considerable planning), and Portuguese well. (Additionally I have a degres in Arabic and Islam). Can you not acknowledge that foreign language instruction in the USA is largely a failure?) The communities of Esperanto speakers abroad made my years (in Israel and Brazil) well worth my time. Check out free hospitality via Pasporta Servo.
L.L. Zamenhof (founder of Esperanto) preached world peace the way no political leader ever has. (I personally am comfortable comparing him with Martin Luther King or Gandhi). His belief in peace has provoked opposition by nationalists (among others Stalin and Hitler)fully documented in the book La Danghera Lingvo (published recently in Russian). That did not stop UN Australian Ambassador Ralph Harry to advocate his entire life for Esperanto and open the office where I volunteer, at a building called Church Center (opposite the UN/New York), where many religions advocate for world peace.

I note your interest in China and Chinese, where the most professional Esperanto magazines and radio broadcasts regularly appear or occur.
The paper magazine had a run for over 30 years and was called El Popola Cinio. It was replaced by the internet more recently. I think another site is
May I plug my blog again?
Sincerely, Neil Blonstein