What you need to know about 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).

Esperanto is the most widely spoken constructed language in the world today, spoken by several million speakers. What that means is that it did not develop naturally like most other languages. It was designed.

In 1887, L. L. Zamenhof, a Polish ophthalmologist and writer, published a book detailing the structure and vocabulary of a wholly new language (which was not given any name in the book). The pen name Zamenhof chose was Doktoro Esperantoand people who started learning the new language simply called it by the “surname” of its author, Esperanto, which translates as “one who hopes” from Esperanto.

The main goal of the new language was to simplify international communication by providing a common language that is both easy to master and culturally neutral (our current lingua francas, such as English, always provide an inherent advantage to certain nations). Esperanto achieves cultural neutrality by using many different (European) languages as vocabulary sourceshowever, some argue that Esperanto still fails to achieve complete cultural neutrality due to its overreliance on European languages.

In this article, I am going to discuss some of the most common questions (and misconceptions) people have about Esperanto.

Is Esperanto easy to learn?

Yes! Esperanto is significantly easier to learn than any natural language, and studies have shown that, if you are a native speaker of a European language, you can become proficient in Esperanto in about 1/10 of the time you’d need to become proficient in another European language. That’s quite impressive.

Esperanto has a very simple grammar with no exceptions whatsoever. For example, esti means “to be” in Esperanto. To form the present tense, we simply replace -i by -as:

mi estas – I am
vi estas – you are
li/ŝi estas – he/she is

Words in Esperanto were chosen in such a way that a large number of them should look familiar to most speakers of European languages. An English speaker should have no trouble remembering that havi means “to have”, and since it follows the same simple conjugation pattern,

mi havas – I have
vi havas – you have
li/ŝi havas – he/she has

knowing that “to have” is havi is pretty much everything you need to know about the verb. The past tense of every verb is formed by replacing -i by -is:

mi havis – I had
ŝi estis – she was

There is no need to remember irregular past tense formssimply because there are none. The future tense is formed by adding -os (mi havos: I will have), and the conditional with -us (mi havus: I would have).

Congratulations! You have pretty much mastered the entire system of Esperanto tenses! Can you decipher the following sentences now?

Ŝi havis glason da akvo.
[Hint: glaso(n) means “a glass”, and akvo means “water”.]
Mi lernos Esperanton.
[Hint: lerni means “to learn”]

To summarize: You can learn pretty much the entire grammar of Esperanto in just a few days, including all verb and noun forms. After learning a few basic rules about how Esperanto words are formed, you will also be able to recognize the majority of the words right away. You will still need to learn quite a few roots you may not be familiar with, but the number of such roots will be several times lower than in other languages.

Is Esperanto inferior to natural languages?

Some people think that, as it is a constructed language, Esperanto must be somehow “worse” than languages like English or German. This is not the case; Esperanto is a fully developed language. Although it started as a theoretical construct, it has had an active community of users ever since its conception, and the language naturally absorbed new words and new ways to express things as people were using it, just like a natural language would.

It even has around two thousand native speakers, i.e. children from Esperanto-speaking families (there are rare cases when the parents speak different native languages and communicate in Esperanto). And where there are native speakers, full-fledged languages naturally develop.

How many Esperanto speakers are there?

The precise number of Esperanto speakers is hard to gauge. It has been estimated that there are a few hundred thousand proficient speakers of Esperanto in the world and up to two million people who are familiar with the language to some extent.

Is Esperanto a dying language?

No, Esperanto is very much alive, and although it has never achieved its goal of becoming the world’s lingua franca, the community of its speakers is still very active.

The number of speakers will likely grow significantly in the near future, as it already has more than a million learners on Duolingo (since 2015), growing by about half a million users per year.

Is learning Esperanto good for anything?

Learning Esperanto probably won’t help you get a better job, and it will objectively be less useful than languages like Spanish or German. However, that being said, the time investment needed to learn different languages must be taken into account.

Esperanto is a great tool to improve your understanding of how languages (and learning of languages) work. When you learn a natural language, such as Spanish, its grammar will always be somewhat obscured by irregularities. Learning Esperanto will allow you to understand various grammatical concepts in their pure, unadulterated form.

Furthermore, you will learn quite a few words from other languages within a context that is easy to understand. If you move on to another European language later, it will be a much less intimidating task than if you had started learning it right away.

This pedagogical quality is what I consider the most interesting about Esperanto; the insight into the intricacies of language learning it can give you is definitely worth the relatively low amount of time you’ll have to invest in it, especially if you are currently monolingual or bilingual. If you already speak three or more languages, then the insight you gain from learning Esperanto is probably not that great.

There have even been studies showing that children who learned Esperanto as their second language were actually able to learn a third language faster than children who started learning that language right away (and thus had more time). If anything, this shows how badly languages are taught in schools… But until our teaching methods improve, learning Esperanto first and another language later may be more time-effective for you than learning only your target languageand, in the end, you will know three languages instead of just two!

Should I, personally, learn Esperanto?

I believe it makes a lot of sense to learn Esperanto in the following cases:

  • if you have never studied a foreign language on your own and would like to better understand the process of language learning;
  • if you are interested in constructed languages;
  • if you are interested in languages in general and would like to learn as many as possible;
  • if you are interested in Esperanto culture in particular.

On the other hand, learning Esperanto is probably a waste of time in the following cases:

  • if you need to start learning some other language, like Spanish, French or German, very soon (or have recently started learning it); learning Esperanto and another language at the same time would probably be more confusing than useful (unless you are already a skilled language learner);
  • if you want to learn a language mainly because you want to travel to a country where that language is spoken (Esperanto does not have its own country);
  • if you are mainly interested in literature and want to read classics in the original language (Esperanto does not have many works considered to be “classics” outside the Esperanto community).

Where can I start learning Esperanto?

Duolingo is, hands down, the best free system for learning Esperanto. For a long time, the place to go to learn Esperanto was Lernu!, but I simply find Duolingo better. And if you don’t mind paying a little fee, LingQ is the best commercial system to learn Esperanto vocabulary (or the vocabulary of any major language).

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?

Enter the discussion 0