(Written March 2004 in reply to an editorial in Verda Lumo.)

Estimata redaktoro,

In the article “Have we oversold the simplicity of Esperanto” (Jan-Apr 2004), Allan considers the idea that “overselling” Esperanto and its features has delayed its acceptance. I agree with Allan that this has not been a problem. In my experience talking to people about Esperanto, most know nothing about Esperanto except the phrase “universal language,” so we cannot have deceived them with misinformation — they have no information at all.

However, Allan then writes a number of things that I believe point out a major problem. “They don’t see where their individual effort in learning Esperanto would be felt at all”... “What puzzles us... is the general indifference... among educators, and most particularly educational administrators”... “Would not the extreme gravity of the international situation postulate that serious attention be given by all citizens toward the potentials here...?”

This is a crucial area, one that we must understand in order to make progress: Why do people decide to do things such as learn a language?

First, we need to recognize that most people are already busy. They have a full — or even over-full — life. They work eight hours a day, commute a couple hours more, need time to eat and be with their families, time to relax, time for chores, even to sleep. And they have more than enough problems at work, with everyday tasks, paperwork, planning, budget fights, incompetent vendors, inadequate office space, broken copiers, network problems. It’s astonishing that anyone finds time to voluntarily pick up extra tasks. It’s almost as astonishing that anyone manages to look beyond the end of the fiscal quarter to consider larger, world-wide problems.

And when they do, there are lots of local and world-wide problems out there. They can save the whales, or adopt an orphan, or fight starvation, fight slavery (really!), preserve the rain forests, clean up local rivers, help libraries, the list is unending. Why is Esperanto more important, more deserving of their time and effort?

We want to persuade people to give that very limited, very personal resource of time to our cause. We’ll need to be very persuasive to get them to commit the time needed, and to our cause. If we think that people will automatically recognize problems outside their daily grind and immediately resolve to learn Esperanto, we are doomed to be disappointed. (Too many beginning Esperantists do expect just this, and are disappointed, and burn out or give up.)

So we have at least three stages of work to do. First, we have to tell people what Esperanto is. In my experience, half the people I talk to have never heard of Esperanto at all; the other half can only say, “It’s supposed to be a universal language.” Almost none of them know how many people speak Esperanto, that it is much easier, that dictionaries exist, etc. Fortunately this part of our work is pretty easy: we just give them the facts.

But the facts won’t automatically convince people that Esperanto is important. People need help to make this logical step. The only way we can make sure they understand this is to explain it to them; we have to make this connection clear. And — this is crucial — why it is important to them. This will not be the same for every person! Why get involved? For teachers, perhaps to help them get their job done. (How? Perhaps an easier-to-learn language will get students more interested in geography, culture, current events, languages.) For others, perhaps it helps them fulfill their desire to improve the world. (How? Maybe by bringing people together.) Or they are just interested in travel (Pasporta Servo helps them) or languages (intriguing vocabulary) or whatever. We assume they will figure this out, but too often they don’t. We need to connect the dots for them.

And third, we need to motivate them to get started. Again, people are very busy. Who has time to learn a language, even an easier one? Should they give up another responsibility? Maybe one of their hobbies? Or their day job? We need to make clear that just a few minutes a day, or a couple of hours a week, is enough. We need to promise that they will get help. We need to keep in touch with them to help them stay on track. When you buy a car or a refrigerator, it comes with an 800 number or a dealer to help with problems. Why? Because this helps people buy the product.

So we need to do at least three things: (1) Tell people about Esperanto. (2) Explain to them why they want to learn it. (3) Get them started. None of these things happen by themselves. If we make them happen, I believe we will see real results.

Thanks —

David Wolff

[Back to articles page]