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. I do believe it is, but they always confused cause and effect in their 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 assert is probably true, yet what they imply is not. 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 do the converse. Wherever they travel (and Esperantists are often highly social 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 (including me) are not as much sociable.

It’s all about the distinction between cause and effect. If we rewrote the quotations above to make the real cause and its effect clear, they would read:

  • Because I met many people within the Esperanto community, it was our only common tongue for many of them.
  • I chose to become friends with people who spoke Esperanto and not other world languages. Consequently, we wouldn’t be able to communicate if I or they hadn’t chosen to learn Esperanto.
  • On this page, you can see ten pictures of people that helped me in Hanoi and Seoul, just because I speak Esperanto. It doesn’t show the pictures of hundreds of people who would be interested in helping me because of our shared interests and another language we had in common: English.

This, of course, doesn’t imply anything at all about usefulness of Esperanto to its potential learners; it could still be the best language to learn for you, and I discussed everything you should consider in my previous article. However, 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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