Esperantists often overestimate the probability of being able to speak Esperanto

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

After I published my previous article explaining the pros and cons of learning Esperanto, one of which is that you are not likely to use it much in practice because not many people speak it, I received many comments by Esperanto speakers trying to explain how immensely useful Esperanto was in their social lives and communication, thus trying to disprove my point.

I do believe Esperanto has been very useful for those particular people, but they always confused the cause and the effect in their line of reasoning. The argument commonly goes as follows (actual quotations):

  • I doubt your assertion that “The probability that Esperanto would be the only means of communication with just a single person in my life is close to zero.” I have often used Esperanto with people for whom it is our only common tongue.
  • I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise.
  • In this page you could see ten pictures of people that helped me in Hanoi and Seoul, just because I speak Esperanto.

What these people imply is simply not true. Esperanto is spoken by approximately 1 in 4000 people in the world, that is, when you travel abroad, bump into a random person, and try to communicate, the probability that the other person speaks Esperanto is just 1/4000 or about 0.03%. When you try English, the probability will be in the 25–90% range in most European countries, and still at least two orders of magnitude higher than for Esperanto in the rest of the world.

The important point to understand is that meeting people is usually like bumping into random strangers. Do you like to dance, for example? Most people would go to a dance club and then strike up a conversation with people there. Are you a mathematician? Then you would probably travel somewhere in order to attend a conference, to give a talk, or to simply discuss some ideas with other mathematicians. If they happened not to be native speakers of your mother tongue, you would try to find the most appropriate common language. Most people first share an interest and then they try to find a way to communicate.

Esperantists often do the opposite. Wherever they travel (and Esperantists are often highly sociable people who like to travel a lot), they first find a community of Esperanto speakers, make friends, and only secondarily find out whether they share any interests with the other person (and Esperanto itself is one of such interests). In that respect, Esperanto seems to be the ideal language for highly sociable people: it’s a brilliant tool to meet other highly sociable people. But most people are not as sociable.

Some Esperantists do not seem to understand that they belong (in terms of their specific lifestyle) into a relatively tiny group, and hence their personal experiences would not apply to the vast majority of people. Let’s explain the logical fallacies the quotes above contain:

  • “I have often used Esperanto with people for whom it is our only common tongue.”
    The same argument could be used for any other language. If you decided to learn Klingon and went to Klingon language meetups in other countries, you would likely meet people with whom you would share only Klingon as a common tongue. That’s hardly a convincing argument to learn Klingon.
  • “I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise.”
    This is essentially the same argument and sort of a tautology. “I chose to become friends with speakers of a certain language with whom I would not be able to communicate if I didn’t learn that language.” Yeah… You are still not able to communicate with more than 6 billion people who speak neither English nor Esperanto. If you studied Spanish and were just as passionate about it, you would probably made even more friends.
  • “In this page you could see ten pictures of people that helped me in Hanoi and Seoul, just because I speak Esperanto.”
    While this a good argument to show that Esperanto is not useless, it does not compare its utility with other languages. There will be far more English speakers or even French speakers in Seoul and Hanoi than Esperanto speakers, and many of those people would be willing to help you too because of your other shared interests.

This all, of course, does not mean that Esperanto is not a good choice of language for you; I discuss everything you should consider in my previous article. I am just trying to say that the common argument Esperanto speakers use is in fact circular. They are basically saying: “I am enthusiastic about my hobby, thanks to which I met many other enthusiasts. That’s why you should become interested in my hobby, too.” The same could be said about pretty much any other activity.

By the way, I have written several educational ebooks. If you get a copy, you can learn new things and support this website at the same time—why don’t you check them out?

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