Category Archives: Language

Language links at Christmas

It is the first Friday of December, which means the first language post of the Christmas season, and what better way to start moving through the advent calendar than this superb version of “God Bless Us Everyone“, popularised by a “Christmas Carol” (the 2009 Carrey version)?

I have written many times before that the best way to learn languages is through music. The linked version is a particularly good example because, of course, those of us who have seen the animated film (probably several times each Christmas if my household is remotely typical) will be familiar with the song and the lyrics. Putting those lyrics into another language, ideally the original, means that we have a head start because we know roughly what they say already (although the demands of rhyme and meter do not allow for word-for-word translations, so there is still some challenge).

So it is with the magic of “Silent Night” (original German “Stille Nacht“), “O Holy Night” (original French “Cantique de Noël“) or even “Feliz Navidad“. Learning the linked original gives us a chance of understanding, while also picking up the rhythms of the language as we go along – without, really, much effort.

The other main trick to language learning, of course, is to recognise the links between languages. In the linked version of Bocelli’s performance, the lyrics are provided subtitled in both Italian and Portuguese. Both of these languages are derived from Latin and, although both are closer to Spanish than to each other, it is not difficult to see how closely linked they remain.

It is not just the links between them we pick up in this way, but also the distinct flavour of each language. Why not look at some examples?

  • Italian notte “night”, Portuguese noite (Spanish noche) derive from the Latin nox-noctem (generally nouns in modern languages of Latin origin derive from the object form, not the subject – noctem in this case) but none retains the awkward ‘c’ before ‘t’, merging it in slightly different ways (and even the Classical Romans did not pronounce the final ‘m’ except in very careful speech, so it is long lost in all derived languages);
  • that is just one of the majority of the words in the lyrics which are obviously cognate in both languages (a few are identical, e.g. sempre “always”; some are distinguished only by orthography, e.g. Italian che “that, which” versus Portuguese/Spanish que, armonia “harmony” versus harmonia, or iniziare “to beginversus iniciar; some are only a matter of an additional syllable or minor change, e.g. Italian qui “here” versus Portuguese/Spanish aquí; others still have markedly different spellings marking only minor differences in pronunciation, e.g. Italian Dio “God” is apparent in the written Spanish Dios but slightly less so in written Portuguese Deus);
  • Italian retains ogni “all, each” from Latin omnes “all”, whereas Portuguese (and Spanish) uses cada from later Latin cata “by”; all three also have a word for “all” derived from Latin totus (tutto, tudo/todo and todo respectively; cf. English “total”);
  • Italian cuore “heart” derives directly from Latin cor, whereas Portuguese coração (and Spanish corazón) derive from the later expanded Latin version coratio (also the derivation of “courage”);
  • Italian esultare “to rejoice” in this case shows Italian modifying and awkward combination (note also the coffee is “espresso” not *”expresso”!) where Portuguese (and Spanish) retain the original exultar;
  • Italian (also Spanish) libero “free” has become livre in Portuguese; this is a fairly standard switch (cf. Italian possibile, Spanish possible but Portuguese possível);
  • Italian male “evil” (as well as Natale “Christmas” with which it rhymes) shows the straightforward Italian preference (near requirement) for words to end in vowels (which makes it such a fantastic language for music), where Portuguese and Spanish are quite happy with mal – we see this again with Signore “Lord” versus Senhor (Spanish señor) in the next line and with grammatical endings such as amare “to love” versus amar (also apparent in the noun amore “love” versus amor);
  • Italian guidare “to guide” is again more conservative, identical to the Latin, where Portuguese (and Spanish) have both removed the medial ‘d’ to become guiar – this loss is more common in Portuguese than in Spanish, and occurs again later in the lyrics where Italian padri, madri “fathers, mothers” becomes Portuguese pais, mães (but the ‘d’ is maintained in Spanish padres, madres).
  • Italian ascoltare “to listen” is similar to Spanish escoltar but Portuguese prefers ouvir (more typically translated as “to hear”) in this case;
  • Italian aiutare “to help” shows the standard voicing of medial ‘t’ to medial ‘d’ versus Portuguese ajudar (Spanish ayudar) – shown immediately again in lodato “praised” versus louvado;
  • Italian miracolo “miracle” also shows a standard distinction from ‘r’ to ‘l’ and again voicing from ‘c’ to ‘g’, thus Portuguese milagre (Spanish milagro).
  • The Italian object pronoun ci is a development of Latin hic “this/here” and is thus markedly different from all other Latin-derived languages including Portuguese (and Spanish) with nos “us.
  • Italian preghiere derives directly from Latin  precor “pray”, whereas Portuguese (and Spanish) have rezar from Latin recitare “recite”;
  • The ending on the Italian carità “charity” from Latin caritas-caritatem becomes by standard derivation (noting again the above devoicing from ‘t’ to ‘d’) caridade in Portuguese (caridad in Spanish) – this also applies in the very first line to Italian felicità “happiness” from Latin felicitas (versus Portuguese felicidade and Spanish felicidad);
  • Italian infondere “to instill” is from Latin infundere but the chosen Portuguese translation incutir derives from incutio (which is perhaps closer to “inspire” in a general sense);
  • Italian sono, in this case “(they) are”, shows how unstable the verb “to be” is – though it is not apparent, it does derive from the same origin ultimately as Portuguese estão (Spanish would have son like Italian here, but also has estan like Portuguese in some contexts);
  • Italian has cercare “to search” and (ri)trovare “find (again), retrieve” distinctly from Portuguese (and Spanish) buscar and (r)encontrar, but ultimately three are derived from Latin (circare “to look around”; tropus a way of singing; incontrare “to encounter, meet”) and one (buscar) is of unknown origin – the choice between them is one of usage through the ages;
  • Italian quello “that” does have a Portuguese cognate aquele, as the Portuguese este “this” does have an Italian cognate questo (it just so happens that the different one was chosen in the translation to reflect modern usage);
  • Italian vincere “to win” by regular differentiation has become Portuguese (and Spanish) vencer – above, this also applied to Signore versus Senhor, and it even applies to distinctions such as di “of, from” versus de;
  • Italian benedicere “bless” derives more directly from bene “well” plus dicere “say” (which are both still the contemporary forms) than the Portuguese abençoar which derives from older ben plus diçoar (modern bem and dizer); and
  • we also see throughout that Italian has maintained the formation of the plural by changing vowel (typically -o to –i, –a to –e or -e to -i) whereas Spanish and Portuguese typically add -(e)s.

So what have we learned just from this short section?

  • as with any pairs of Latin-derived languages, a lot of words (e.g. sempre or armonia/harmonia) are absolutely identical or at least essentially the same (there are many more, e.g. casa “house”, costa “coast” or verde “green”);
  • voiceless consonants before vowels are often voiced in Portuguese (e.g. aiutare/ajudar), so we may reasonably guess that Italian sete “thirst” will be Portuguese sede or fuoco “fire” will be fogo;
  • voiced consonants between vowels can be lost completely in Portuguese (as in fact can others such as ‘l’; Italian salute “health” versus Portuguese saude);
  • Italian retains higher vowels (e.g. vincere versus vencer; also in “in” versus em, diciembre “December” versus dezembro);
  • in some cases Italian retains an older syllable (e.g. settimana “week” versus Portuguese/Spanish semana) or even just a more directly Latinate word (e.g. domandare “to ask” versus Portuguese perguntar);
  • endings can be predictable (just as Italian felicità “happiness” is Portuguese felicidade, so qualità “quality” is qualidade; likewise possibile “possible” versus possível and mobile “mobile” versus móvel; and there are others – if attenzione “attention” is atenção, we may guess that nazione “nation” is nação); and
  • the basic structure in terms of verb conjugations, positioning of pronouns, basic word order and so on is similar in each language, with notable exceptions (such as plural formation).

Remember, we got all this ultimately from the lyrics of one short, very memorable song!!

This is the fun and effective way to learn languages – through obvious linkages based on memorable music.

Now, where is that Advent Calendar…?




Can you learn Spanish without the subjunctive?

There was an interesting exchange on Twitter recently on the topic of the subjunctive.

That seems an unlikely opening sentence to any blog post, so I should be specific: it was about the case that to learn a language, at least initially, you do not need to learn all the detailed aspects of its grammar and general form. The example given was that it is possible (allegedly) to get a long way in Spanish without needing the subjunctive.

This argument had its proponent and its opponent. I do not fall into either category completely, but I veer more towards the opponent in this case.


The subjunctive is a verbal “mood”, rarely used in English (usually to mark obligation or recommendation: “It is essential that you be there“) but very common in Spanish. Furthermore, in Spanish its form is more likely to vary (in English, the subjunctive form is as often as not the same as the “normal” indicative: “It is essential that you come“).


Spanish has maintained the subjunctive in wide use, even in the colloquial spoken language. It is obligatory in many instances (vienes “you come”; es muy importante que vengas “it is very important that you come”); and it is vital to meaning in others (aunque vienes “even though you are coming”; aunque vengas “even if you come”).

Basic Learning

The essential argument that it is not necessary to know every aspect of a language’s structure at the outset is undoubtedly true. After all, when we teach any language, we tend to start with the “normal” indicative present tense and then introduce other tenses and forms as we go along.

When I teach Spanish to community groups, I often avoid teaching verb forms at all initially. Instead of learning puedo “I can”, puedes “you can”, podemos “we can” and so on, it is possible for example to learn “es posible por mí… por ti… por nosotros” and then also “es necesario…”, “es bueno…” and so on for basic phrases (thus we can already express possibility, necessity and desirability without any verb forms).

Therefore, I do see the argument that the subjunctive is not necessary at, or even particularly near, the outset.


However, it is a simple reality of the structure of the Spanish language that the subjunctive is widely used (and, as noted above, often decisive as to meaning).

Therefore, it is not quite accurate, in my view, to say it can be delayed indefinitely or even for any real length of time.

Spanish also, for example, has three past tense forms [strictly two, plus a present form which indicates past]. I would contend that in fact it is more important to know the present subjunctive than to know the preterite (one of those past tense forms), as it is more likely to arise sooner and in a way which may be decisive as to meaning. Most native speakers will understand a foreigner mixing past tense forms, but may be thrown by the use or non-use of the subjunctive.


Therefore, reluctantly, I conclude the subjunctive (at least in the present form) is necessary fairly early. It simply cannot be avoided for too long without sounding ludicrously stilted or just plain wrong.

I would suggest the same applies to Italian and Portuguese (perhaps not so much to spoken French).

Language has identity aspect

This is not an advertising blog, but this book brought to my attention by a regular correspondent is surely an important contribution to our understanding of what language is.

I should declare a further interest that my company offers a course on the subject.

There are a lot of issues here which are worth bringing together in summary:

  • language is not solely about communication of immediate information – everything, from choice of register even to choice of language, communicates things about identity and attitude well beyond the mere information conveyed;
  • what is a language cannot be defined linguistically – what are apparently individual languages or not is often a political choice, and changes with politics (30 years ago Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin were all the same language);
  • all languages are to some extent human constructs (the choice of what constitutes good or bad usage, formal or informal register and so on is determined by social leaders, even sometimes influential individuals – dropping ‘h’ in English used to be deemed formal/high register, for example) and thus entire languages can be reconstructed and put back into full use having once been assumed ‘dead’ (e.g. Hebrew);
  • all languages come with certain innate assumptions based on the culture of those who speak them (this even includes the likes of Esperanto – far from ‘neutral’, it attracts a particular group who tend to be internationalist and left-leaning);
  • close to home, it is utterly naive to assume development of Irish or Ulster Scots (or indeed Scots in Scotland) will be a-political by default – indeed, the promotion of (and opposition to) minority and regional languages is fundamentally political.

It is worth noting, also, that although standard languages are defined by nations (and national identity), linguistic borders can also shape national borders.

I am not remotely suggesting the linked book focuses on all of these points, but they were triggered by it!



Esperanto 2.0

My piece a month ago on Esperanto raised a debate among some correspondents about whether Esperanto would have a better chance of attaining its original aim of becoming a universal global language if its imperfections were ironed out.

To be clear, the pracelo (‘original goal’) was that Esperanto would become the lingvo internacia. In 2016, this probably is not as clearly understood as it was in 1887; the idea was that the lingvo internacia would stand along side everyone’s lingvo nacia. In other words, national languages would continue to be used within national boundaries, but to communicate across them people would use the lingvo internacia (“inter” meaning precisely what it says).

As one correspondent noted, the problem is the “network effect”. In theory, if even only 10% of the population of every country in Europe and North America were to learn Esperanto, it would become very useful indeed. If you were on a train anywhere from Stockholm to Seattle or Vancouver to Vladivostok, the chances would be that there would be someone in your carriage (never mind the whole train) who spoke both the local lingvo nacia and the lingvo internacia, putting you just one person away from being to communicate with almost everyone.

This objective is so obviously desirable to many people, that many have reached the conclusion that it is Esperanto itself which is to blame. It appears intuitive that if there were a decent “international language” of this type, people would take the time to learn it – not least because that period of time would not be very long, given the language would be designed to be simple, regular and easy to learn.

This logic is compelling, but it is flawed. There are many problems with it, but two obvious ones stand out. The first is that in fact people would not necessarily take the time to learn it, because no matter how simply and regularly it was constructed, it would still take time and effort to attain fluency (that is the nature of human language). The second is quite simply that there already is a lingvo internacia – English. It is already the case that if you are on a train anywhere in Europe or North America, the chances are high that someone on that train, and almost certainly in your carriage, will speak both the local language and English.

This second is, of course, the real issue. Pracelistoj (Esperantists determined to attain the language’s original goal) counter that Esperanto is easier to learn than English because of its simpler structure (but actually that is not true, because structure is not the only issue), or that Esperanto is better because it is neutrala (but actually nothing is neutral, and ultimately if I just want help on a train to work out whether I need to get out at the next stop, I do not care whether my communication is particularly “neutral”).

On top of this, as I argued a month ago, my own view is that the reason Esperanto has succeeded (given that the pracelo is simply unattainable but Esperanto is vastly better known and more widely used than any other constructed language) is that it is imperfect. The imperfections themselves are causes of debate, and debate creates interest and exposure. The result can be sensational.

[Readers in the Belfast area will love the colloquial translation in the above link of “How are you?” as Kio pri vi, literally “What about you?” – it turns out we speak the Universal Dialect…!!]

Due to the above mentioned flawed logic, reform of Esperanto is a hot topic. What is interesting about this is that it means debates about Esperanto usage are as hotly contested (and, er, hypocritical) as with any natural language. The language is based on the Fundamento, 16 rules and other notes published by Zamenhof in 1887 and confirmed by the Declaration of Boulogne in 1905. Interestingly, however, even the Fundamento was itself a reform of an earlier version Zamenhof wrote out but did not publish in 1878; and Zamenhof himself proposed notable revisions in 1894 which were rejected at Boulogne. Boulogne therefore saw the Fundamento become something of a sacred text among some Esperantists, with any deviation at all frowned upon by many.  This in itself caused some breakways, notably Ido shortly after Boulogne (literally “Derived From”, backed by those who supported the 1894 reforms and others) and Novial (an adaptation designed by Danish linguist Otto Jespersen).

The problem has always been that not only are reforms frowned upon by many (who argue that they may interfere with the absolute clarity of the existing language in use), but also that those making them tend to go too far, with the result that they break as much as they fix. In any case, what is the point of learning a language, if someone just comes along and changes it every few years? This is to leave aside the point, as noted above, that even a successful reform would not move Esperanto any nearer the pracelo, because that is unattainable regardless.

However, reform is necessary because languages do change. Reform, however, must seek to reflect the principles of the language, not change them.

For the sake of a bit of fun, here are the reforms I would make if, for some bizarre reason, I were given the opportunity (in detail here):

  • abolition of accented letters and adherence to ‘one letter, one sound’ – there are various ways to do this, but one is to merge <c>, <s> and <z> as <s>, thus leaving <c> and <z> free to represent the sounds of currently accented letters;
  • tidying up of the -au ending for use only on coordinating and interrogative particles (so krom becomes kromau; cu[cxu] becomes cau; etc) with removal of other words possessing it or appropriate amendment (e.g. hodiau is an adverb, so either replaced by tiutage or amended to hodiecxirkau and kontrau are prepositions, so perhaps cirkum and konter; etc);
  • replacement of the (“imperative”) verbal ending -u by -es (to align with all the other verbal endings), with consequent simplification of correlatives by abolition of those ending -es (if al ciu[cxiu] is good enough, there is no reason de ciu should not be); and
  • adoption then of -u for personal pronouns (whose endings currently clash bizarrely with the infinitive), perhaps with consequent plural regularization and reduction – these could be simply mu, vu, lu/cu/zu, muj, vuj, zuj (with perhaps indefinite onu and reflexive su) and adjectival forms still adding -a/aj.

This way, we have actually reformed the language to bring it more into line with founding principles – a simpler spelling system with “one sound, one letter”, and a simpler system of grammatical endings (so that post-vowel -s always marks a main verb; post-consonant -u always marks a pronoun; and -au always marks a particle).

Let us say I also got a little more adventurous and could add another couple:

  • consequent tidying up of numbers, to be single syllable, more easily pronounced, and not liable to confusion with other word classes or each other, to un, du, tri, fir, cin, heks, sep, ok, non, dek (with unu reserved effectively for use as a quantifying pronoun);
  • in line with the above preferable rejection of consonantal clusters, simplification of the verb ‘to be’ to esi or even, to reflect that modern pronunciation often in practice drops the initial e-, just si – thus mu (e)sas ‘I am’; zuj (e)ses ‘they should be’; etc.

Of course, most of these reforms reflect the 1894 reforms or aspects of Ido or Novial, but the key is to stop digging once you have done the basics. I would be tempted, for example, to:

  • switch around the correlatives ending -o with those ending -u;
  • remove the letter <h>;
  • take out a few syllables in widely used vocabulary items (e.g. statau not anstatauparteni not aparteni; ci for sciinio/niu/niom etc. not nenio/neniu/neniom etc.);
  • formal addition of aliu, aliam etc to the list of correlatives;
  • remove consonantal clusters altogether (unknown in numerous major languages, from Japanese to Malay-Indonesian);
  • change kun to kon in line with the common prefix (thus konveno, koniri alongside konstrui, konfesi);
  • change kaj to ed aligned with sed;
  • allow two objects on the assumption that the first is indirect (mu donas vun leteron ‘I give you a letter’);
  • abolish the article la outright; and
  • reduce the number of prepositions (merging de/da/elpro/por etc.)

However, in reality I would not advocate these. The issue is, the more changes you make, the more you have to make, as we can see from one example I deliberately added above:

  • I had already changed the subjunctive-imperative ending, by perfectly reasonable analogy with other verb endings, to -es;
  • I then changed the verb ‘to be’, initially in line with Ido (which went from esti to esi) and then genuinely to reflect the fact that many users omit the initial e- in speech (so from esi to si);
  • that then gave the subjunctive-imperative verb form ses;
  • but ses is, of course, already in use as the number ‘six’, so that then had to be replaced;
  • it is conventional for vocabulary to be drawn from somewhere, so I make out I am deliberately differentiating from sep ‘seven’ (not an unreasonable thing to do, but if you started down that line across the language you would never stop) by borrowing heks from Greek;
  • now I have just borrowed a word with a consonantal cluster at the end, defeating one of the points of the reform, so I have to make out that is fine because the word won’t take a suffix (even though actually it may be a prefix, but don’t tell anyone…)
  • … phew, I might just have escaped this time, but let’s not risk it again, eh?!

So no, in fact I would leave the numbers (except non ‘nine’) alone! I think I would probably also have to leave esti (though I might at least suggest sti, in line with the actual pronunciation which some research has found to be a common adaptation among native speakers).

Therefore, there is only so far you can take people and only so far you can go without losing the spirit of the original language or causing further complications – a reality in any language, artificial or natural!

Tial stus la zojo de Esperanto 2.0…

Such would be the joy of Esperanto 2.0…

Is policy on Irish language self-defeating?

Eoin Butler, a Gaeilgeoir from Mayo, has put out a challenging video on Irish Government policy with regards to the Irish language.

Essentially, he argues, it’s nonsense.

The arguments made to explain the decline of the Irish language (to minority status even within the Gaeltacht) – essentially that it does not receive enough government support and that it is not taught properly, and that in any case any nation needs a language of its own – are flawed. In fact, he continues, its decline is for the simple reason that the Irish have made the English language their own (as a matter of fact), and indeed it is only being kept on life support to encourage tourism in areas of the country with no industry and artificially to maintain a translation service. This is an issue because it causes confusion over the law, and indeed is even outright dangerous (in the case, for example, of warning signs put in heavily touristy areas in a language no tourist will speak).

Objectively, it is very hard to argue with any of that (although I may challenge a little of it). However, Mr Butler’s point (remember, as a Gaeilgeoir) is that the whole issue is not dealt with objectively. My own view is that he needs to build on that point – human beings are not objective; and even less so when nationalism (or general “group-think”) comes into play.

This is the thing: every nation has its completely irrational aspects – but these aspects are deliberately distinct from any other nation, and thus form a national bond. England has lots of them, from the use of miles rather than kilometres to the odd terminology in its parliament. France has a linguistic issue of its own. Germany has a determination not to have upper speed limits. Almost any country of standing has them, in other words.

So, in my view, that is what this is about. It is an incredible aspect of human nature, particularly when combined as “groups” or “nations”, that we engage in “debate” on such irrational terms around particular subjects.

Put that “irrational national distinctiveness” together with the vested interests of which Mr Butler speaks and there is not much chance of change. What Mr Butler says about the likelihood of knowledge of the Irish language being enhanced by removing the compulsion to learn it is absolutely correct. But Irish Government policy is not about enhancing knowledge of the Irish language. That is probably where the “debate” needs to begin.

Should we learn Esperanto first? / Cxu ni devus unue lerni Esperanton?

[English translation below]

Paroladoj TED-aj ofte estas strangaj kaj ekscitaj, kaj tio cxi pri Esperanto kiel ponto lingva ne estis escepto!

Post miaj aliaj artikoloj pri Esperanto, intereson esprimis multaj, cxu Esperanto vere estas tiel uzebla.

Bedaurinde, mia respondo honesta estas, ke mi ne scias! Sed se mi devus decidi, mi jesus.

Mi ne scias, cxar mi ne lernis Esperanton unue. Mi faris interreta kurso de Esperanto antau kvindek jaroj, sed jam parolis Germanan, Hispanan, kaj iomete Francan. Do mi ne povas diri, se plejbone estas antaue lerni Esperanton. La plejbona gvido estas sperto persona, kaj tiun sperton ne havas mi!

Mi ja povas diri, ke eblas, ke estas avantagxo antaue lerni Esperanton kiel ponto lingva. Lau mi, tio estas ne kial multaj diras. Esperanto gxenerale estas ja simpla, sed kiel mi pasinte diris, la bono lingva de gxi estas, ke gxi ne estas tro facila. Por la mankoj kaj neperfektoj de la lingvo, igxas defio perfekte lerni gxin.

Mi ne volas diri, ke mi multe scias pri la instruado de infanoj. Aliaj povas pri tio paroli plu. Sed mi povas kredi, ke infanoj en la lernejo preferas lerni Esperanton ol Francan au Hispanan, cxar estas pli facila rapide antaueniri en Esperanto ol en aliaj lingvoj pli strukture kompleksaj. Infanoj komence povus multe diri, kaj poste lerni pri akusativo kaj subjunktivo (avantagxo kiam ili volos poste lerni Germanan au Hispanan). Por infanoj, do, mi estas preskau certa, ke plejbone estas unue lerni Esperanton, kaj do mi sxatas, ke tio okazis en iuj lernejoj Anglujaj.

Por plenkreskuloj, mi simple ne scias. Mi supozas, ke ne samas por cxiu individuo. Se oni havas motivon (ekzemple, ke oni volas rapide lerni plurajn aliajn lingvojn), tio versxajne estus bona ideo. Se oni nur volas lerni unu lingvo aparta, mi ne scias, se indus la tempo.

La plej grava estas, ke lingvolernado onin amuzas! Do, se helpas Esperanto, penu lerni gxin! 

TED talks are often odd and exciting, and this one on Esperanto as a linguistic bridge was no exception!

After my other pieces on Esperanto, some have expressed an interest in whether Esperanto really is of use in this way.

Unfortunately, my honest answer is I do not know! But if I had to call it, I would suggest it is.

I do not know, because I did not learn Esperanto first. I did an online course in Esperanto 15 years ago, but already spoke German, Spanish and a little French. So I cannot say, if it is best to learn Esperanto first. The best guide is personal experience, and I don’t have that experience!

But I can say that is it possible that it is an advantage to learn Esperanto beforehand as a language bridge. For me, this is not for the reason many state. Esperanto in general is indeed simple, but as I have said previously, the good thing linguistically is that it is not too easy. Because of its linguistic omissions and imperfections, it becomes a challenge to learn it perfectly.

I do not want to say that I have much knowledge about children’s education. Others can go on to talk about that. But I can believe that children at school prefer to learn Esperanto to French or Spanish, because it is easier to get somewhere in Esperanto than in other more structurally complex languages. Children would be able to say a lot to start with, and then learn about the accusative and the subjunctive (an advantage when they go to learn German or Spanish later). For children, therefore, I am almost certain that it is best to learn Esperanto first, and thus it is good to hear that this has happened in some schools in England.

For adults, I simply do not know. I suppose that it is not the same for every individual. If you have the motivation (for example, because you want to learn several languages quickly), it could be a good idea. But if you only want to learn a particular language, I do not know if it is worth the time.

The most important thing is that language learning is fun! So, if Esperanto helps, make the effort to learn it!


Esperanto – more complex than Afrikaans?

Mi ankau plenesperante skribos venontsemajne!

Two weeks ago I wrote a piece in (and about) Esperanto, to which some correspondents responded by making the “marginal gains” point. People generally do not learn Esperanto because even though the time taken to learn it may be shorter (because it is simpler), the gain for doing so is extremely limited given the relative lack of speakers (even optimistic estimates suggest this is no more than 2 million worldwide – the same as Slovene or Latvian).

That does bring us to another issue: it is taken as read that Esperanto is easy to learn because its structure is simple. Yet, in fact, much of what determines how easy a language is to learn has nothing to do with its structure. Motivation is the real primary determinant; and, of course, if you don’t really have anyone to talk to, your motivation will in practice be limited.

Even then, there remains the assumption that Esperanto is “simple”, and thus easy to learn. The structure is so remarkably regular that there is surely no “natural” language, with all the complications that come with “nature”, to challenge it in that regard. Not even Afrikaans, for example.

Well, let us have a look. Esperanto, of course, is gloriously regular:

  • Ni ordonas ‘We order’
  • Ni ordonis ‘We ordered’
  • Ni ordonos ‘We will order’
  • Ni ordonus ‘We would order’

The ending determines the tense or mood. This could not be easier! Let us have a look at Afrikaans:

  • Ons bestel ‘We order’
  • Ons het bestel ‘We ordered’
  • Ons sal bestel ‘We will order’
  • Ons sou bestel ‘We would order’

The word before the verb determines the tense or mood. So, okay, Afrikaans is pretty easy, but… oh, there’s more…?

  • Ons kan bestel ‘We can order’
  • Ons moet bestel ‘We must order’
  • Ons wil bestel ‘We want to order’

… so surely Esperanto has stuff for this too? Well, yes, but…

  • Ni povas ordoni ‘We can order’
  • Ni devas ordoni ‘We must order’
  • Ni volas ordoni ‘We want to order’

… ahem, if anything Esperanto is the more complex of the two here. Afrikaans allows mood, up to and including ideas such as possibility, obligation and volition, to be expressed through one short word before the verb. Esperanto switches for those things to a structure involving another verb plus an infinitive. Neither is complex, but Esperanto is certainly not the clear winner.

Still, things remain regular in Esperanto even if we are the ones being ordered:

  • Ni ordonas ilin ‘We order them’
  • Ili ordonas nin ‘They order us’

That is nice and straightforward – the object simply adds -n. Could not be easier. Well, except if you didn’t have to add anything at all, perhaps…

  • Ons bestel hulle ‘We order them’
  • Hulle bestel ons ‘They order us’

Would you look at that? Afrikaans manages perfectly well without adding anything, relying solely on word order even with personal pronouns (just as most European languages do with general nouns).

Still, Esperanto is really clever because it is so easy simply to turn that personal pronoun into an adjective:

  • Nia amiko ordonas ‘Our friend orders’

Superb. Just add -a. Could not be easier. Well, except if you didn’t have to add anything at all again, but surely…

  • Ons vriend bestel ‘Our friend orders’

… that’s ridiculous! Afrikaans still does not amend the word ons at all! The word ons in Afrikaans carries the full range of meanings covered in English by ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ and even in Esperanto by ni, nin and nia.

Actually, Esperanto even has a fourth form that English lacks:

  • Ili ordonas nian amikon ‘They order our friend’

Afrikaans is still quite content with the same one:

  • Hulle bestel ons vriend ‘They order our friend’

Indeed, Esperanto has fully six forms here:

  • Niaj amikoj ordonos ‘Our friends will order’
  • Ili povas niajn amikojn ordoni ‘They can order our friends’

Afrikaans still manages with just one for all of this. Note well also that the verb form in Afrikaans has not changed once either (versus five different endings in Esperanto) – just a word in front determines everything:

  • Ons vriende sal bestel ‘Our friends will order’
  • Hulle kan ons vriende bestel ‘They can order our friends’

So, forgesu Esperanton ‘forget Esperanto’! 

Afrikaans for Internasionale Taal ‘International Language’ immediately!

It is not quite that straightforward, of course. Ons is the only personal pronoun which does not change form at all in Afrikaans (although none has more than two forms); the above word order, including bestel appearing after any object except in the present tense, must be strictly observed (whereas it is optional in Esperanto). Most verbs in Afrikaans in fact add ge- after het (Ons maak ‘We make’; Ons het gemaak ‘We made’) and wees ‘to be’ is markedly irregular. Most notably of all, Afrikaans has a fairly complex double negative (Ons het nie gemaak nie ‘We did not make’), varying adjectival forms, and three main plural forms which simply have to be learned with each item of vocabulary.

For all that, however, Afrikaans is not hugely less structurally simple than Esperanto. Even if we accept that, overall, Afrikaans is marginally more complex, it is beyond doubt that Esperanto could be still simpler – for example, as shown above, it exhibits variation in personal pronoun forms and verb forms which Afrikaans seems to manage perfectly well without. (For reference, Esperanto also differentiates between adjectives and adverbs; at least in the case of predicate adjectives, most Germanic languages including Afrikaans get by without such a distinction.)

Let us then consider that Afrikaans is a national language in a regional economic power (and in some neighbouring states); Esperanto is not. Afrikaans has ten times as many speakers as Esperanto; and of these, a third are native (only a handful of Esperanto’s are). Afrikaans is in widespread use in government, in sport, in administration, in business; Esperanto has much more limited reach in such areas. It is true that if you are travelling in general Esperanto will probably be marginally more likely to be understood than Afrikaans, but even that is debatable (given Afrikaans’ direct proximity to Dutch and even German). So, given Afrikaans is barely more complex structurally, what about those “marginal gains”? There is little doubt which is the winner.

Given that this “marginal gain” in favour of Afrikaans also means the average learner will be more motivated to learn it than Esperanto, and that there is a location where someone can go to be exposed to Afrikaans (to hear Afrikaans on the radio; to see Afrikaans on public signage; to have access to it everywhere from in newspapers to on the side of milk cartons), Afrikaans is surely the “easier” language to learn overall.

It depends on the user of course – some may still find Afrikaans hard to tolerate as the language of Apartheid, whereas others may be drawn to Esperanto precisely because it plays to boneco homara (‘mankind’s goodness’). Online courses seem easier to come by in Esperanto than Afrikaans. However, the case that Esperanto is innately “easy” (especially if the objective is near fluency), when considering the whole range of issues involved in learning a language including motivation and exposure, is nothing like as clear as some of its advocates would have us believe.

It is worth being absolutely clear that, taking exposure and motivation into account, English is in fact vastly easier to learn – to any level beyond basic – than Esperanto. I fear Esperantists who deny this obvious fact are missing the whole picture.

Or what about both?! Ni povas kompreneble ambau lerni, se iu nin volas instrui… Ons kan natuurlik beide leer, as iemand ons wil leer… (wait, the same word again in Afrikaans?!!)

“Fluent in three months” is unrealistic for most

Irish polyglot Benny Lewis is among several enthusiastic linguists who have cleverly used social media platforms to promote the notion that you can learn a language in three months (as well as to promote themselves of course – no harm in that, if you are doing something of service that you are passionate about).

Essentially, their proposition is quite straightforward. By immersing yourself in the target language and not making any excuses, you can essentially become fluent in three months.

Well, not quite…

It is of course entirely feasible that if you move to, say, Spain, and you live with a Spanish family, and you are determined to learn Spanish, you will end up conversationally proficient. Indeed, I did so myself in 1998. And it is worth noting that it takes very little skill – motivation combined with exposure will generally suffice.

Easy. Well, no…

It is probable that my own example – which consisted of five months living with a family while doing two modules of a university course in Andalusia – was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For many, such an opportunity will never arise. Anyone going on the relatively regular academic and professional career path while building a family will likely never have the opportunity to take three months or so in a given location and immerse themselves in the local language. There is almost zero chance of anyone having the opportunity several times in a lifetime – unless of course they choose to make an entire business out of it perhaps by running a blog, doing a few sponsored videos, and writing a few books!

To say the least, therefore, I would urge caution. I am the first to argue that anyone can learn a language (that it is like driving a car – some will learn more quickly than others, but anyone can learn). However, I also caution that it cannot be done without effort (hence the absolute need for motivation, even in the unlikely event that you do live in the country of your target language for a period).

I would go further an even state some concern that language learning is being presented by some as somewhat easier than it is. Many people, believing that fluency is possible in three months, will give up when it becomes apparent that there is a little more to it than is sometimes presented. Also, it is somewhat unhelpful to present “immersion” or “no excuses” as the main drivers of success, when in fact there are techniques and priorities that language learners should follow if they wish to maximise the impact of whatever effort they do have time to make.

Fluent in three months? Probably not unless you have nothing else to do. Proficient in three months? Maybe, but stay motivated for longer and success will be even greater!

Why did peaceful Esperanto fail? / Kial malsukcesis paca Esperanto?

[English version below]

Hierau estis la ,internacia tago de paco’, sed estas unu de la tordajxoj kruelaj de la pasinta, ke la inventisto de la plej sukcesa ,helplingvo’ (dezajnita por esti la dua lingvo en cxiuj landoj tutmonde, por tiel helpi komunikado internacia, kaj eble finigas malkomprenojn por tiel antauenigi la pacon) mortis dum la unua milito tutmonda.

Kutime kun Esperanto, oni emas auskulti nur tiujn, kiuj gxin vehemente antauenigas kiel la rimedon perfektan por aliri al la paco tutmonda, au tiujn, kiuj gxin atakas kiel lingvon neuzeblan kaj tute malgxustan.

Kial gxi malsukcesis?

Ja, gxi nur ,malsukcesis’ gxian pracelon (por igxi cxies dua lingvo). La ideo estis ke, se cxiuj parolus Esperanton kune kun la lingvo denaska, la komunikado internacia igxus facila. Oni ecx povus sendi leteron kun sxlotilo simpla por kompreni Esperanton (tiuj sxlotiloj mem haveblis 19 grandajn lingvojn, sed ampleksis nur unu au du pagxojn), kaj la ricevanto povis kompreni gxin (kaj eble respondi, cxar Esperanto sxajne estis tiel facile lernigxi). Principe tio ne estas ridinda ideo. Do kio malgxustas kun la lingvo, ke tio ne okazis? 

Unue, debateblas cxu iu lingvo konstruita povas plenigi tian rolon. Lingvistiko ne estas matematiko; do lingvoj devas esti naturaj (evoluigata tra tempo) por gajni akcepto largxa. Iu lingvo konstruita donos al oni la senton, ke gxi estas nur ia kodo (ne gravas, kiel gxi estas farata). Fakte, ju pli perfekte iu konstruita lingvo estos farata, des pli kiel nura kodo gxi sxajnos. 

Due, Esperanto ne estas perfekta, kion ecx Zamenhof konfesis. Li relative estis juna viro kun la eliro de liaj regoloj kaj vortaro je 1887, kaj li tiam faras bona laboro, kiam aliro al la scio lingva (ecx ankau socia) havis multajn pli da limoj ol gxi hodiau havus. Iuj liaj decidoj estis tamen ridindaj pro lia celo deklarita.

Do, kion oni dirus pri la aliaj eblaj celoj? Esperanto nun estas uzita en iuj lernejoj elementaj en Anglujo, kiel unua ,ekstera lingvo’. Miaopinie gxi estas perfekta por tio, gxuste cxar gxi ne estas perfekta (kun tiel komplikajxoj kiel akuzativo kaj subjunktivo, kiu Angle apenau ekzistas). 

Esperanto ankau povas uzigxi studojn pri evidento de la sxangxo lingva. Krom ciuj lingvoj naturaj, la reformo Esperanta cxiam havas kontauulojn inter gxiaj parolantoj, kaj tio cxi ankau interese montras, ke Esperanto vere ne estas nur artefarita lingvo!

Do la pracelo vere ne okazos, parte pro la neperfektoj en la lingvo. Sed tiuj neperfektoj cxi signifas, ke estonteca rolo Esperanta eksistas en studo lingva. Almenau lau mi, gxi ja estas nenia malsukceso!

Yesterday was the “International Day of Peace”, but it is one of history’s cruel twists that the founder of the most successful “auxiliary language” (designed to be everyone’s second language and thus aid international communication, potentially ending misunderstandings and thus promoting peace) died during World War One.

As usual, with Esperanto, exposure generally goes to those who either promote it vehemently as the perfect driver of world peace, or who decry it as completely flawed and useless. Of course, as ever, the truth is somewhere between those two, but you rarely get prizes for pointing that out!

Why did it fail?

Well, it only “failed” in terms of its pracelo (“original goal”) of becoming everyone’s second language. The idea was that if everyone spoke Esperanto alongside their own native language, international communication would become easy – you could even send a letter with a simple key to understanding Esperanto (such keys were themselves made available in 19 major languages, but took up only a page or so), and the recipient could understand (and perhaps even reply, such was the supposed ease with which Esperanto could be learned). This is in principle not a ludicrous idea. So what was wrong with the language that it did not happen?

Firstly, it is debatable whether any invented language could fulfil such a role. Language just is not mathematics; thus languages need to be natural (i.e. developed through time) to gain widespread acceptance. Any invented language will create the feeling that it is really just a code, no matter how well it is done. Indeed, the more perfectly such a language is designed (without irregularities and such like), the more code-like it will seem.

Secondly, Esperanto is not perfect, something Zamenhof himself admitted. He was still a relatively young man upon publication of its rules and vocabulary in 1887, and he had done a very good job in an age where access to linguistic (and even social) knowledge was much more restricted than it is now. Nevertheless some decisions he made were simply ludicrous, given his stated goal. The phonology is particularly flawed, for a number of reasons, including:

  • there are simply too many consonant sounds, particularly affricates (typically represented in English by <ch> or <sh>);
  • a significant number of sounds are extremely rare (for example, French and Italian lack either <h> or <hx>);
  • there are lots of difficult consonantal clusters (sometimes even for simple words – scii “to know” is almost impossible to pronounce clearly and in a natural language would inevitably over time become simply ci);
  • the presence of diphthongs (vowels sounded together such as English”boy“) is an unnecessary complication, unknown in major languages such as Spanish and Arabic;
  • the principle of “one sound, one letter” is broken right from the outset (in Esperanto, /ts/ can be written <ts> or <c>); and
  • there are accented letters (represented by necessity here by a following <x> because there is no means of marking the required circumflexes correctly even on a modern tablet), and to make matters worse they often bear no relation to the unaccounted one (so <j> has nothing to do with <jx>).

This is a huge frustration, because such complications are just unnecessary and they so obviously spoil an otherwise good effort!

So what about other celoj (goals)?

Esperanto has now been used in some primary schools in England as a first “foreign language”.  Arguably, it is perfect for that precisely because it is imperfect. As noted above, it requires some sounds which are rare or even absent in English (as do other languages), and it even has some quirky complications, such as:

  • an accusative – objects of the sentence or (usually) words towards which there is motion are marked with an additional -n; and
  • a subjunctive – the verb in subordinate clauses expressing desire or command is placed in the subjunctive, marked -u.

Thus, “I am at home” is mi estas hejme; but “I go home” is mi iras hejmen; and “I wish that you would go home” is mi volas ke vi iras hejmen but “I want you to go home” is mi volas ke vi iru hejmen. That is all a bit tricky – even a bit real!

Esperanto can also be used in academic studies for evidence of how languages change. For example, for “I am tired” is fundamentally mi estas laca, but now simply mi lacas is allowable. As noted above, inevitably some words would change too due to awkward pronunciations (even esti “to be” is generally now pronounced sti). There is also lively debate about vocabulary, notably around gender reform (as with many languages, but particularly relevant in a supposedly global language of peace) and the overuse of the mal– prefix to make opposites (so dekstra “right” becomes maldekstra “left”, but many writers now prefer liva for “left”, at least informally). As with any language, deliberate reform draws resistance from language users, and this is in itself an interesting issue – and a marker of how Esperanto is not so artificial after all!

So the pracelo will never realistically be met, partly because of the language’s imperfections. But it is these very imperfections which mean there is still a role for Esperanto in language study. Maybe it is not such a malsukceso after all!

Learn a language’s basic structure to learn a language

One of the things which trips up language learners is that they expect the target language to be structurally the same as their own. They make an apparently natural assumption, for example, that word order is pretty much the same in any language – probably basically ‘subject, verb, object’.

Let us just take basic word order, to demonstrate the point.

In English, it is assumed that the word order is ‘subject, verb, object’ (also known as ‘SVO’) – “I love you”, “the farmer saves the sailor”, and so on. English speakers assume this to be normal generally.

In fact, it is not absolute even in English. Nor is it in most languages (see what I did there?!)

In English, ‘interrogative clauses’ (questions) are basically ‘Verb, subject, object’ (‘VSO’). Certain conjunctions or other markers (such as “nor” above) also require this change, even where there is no question.

The assumption that ‘SVO’ is ‘normal’ is backed by the first language many English speakers encounter, typically French or Spanish. These are both basically ‘SVO’ too, although there is of course one notable pecularity: when the ‘object’ is a personal pronoun, they become ‘SOV’ (this is not usually taught this way, but that is in effect what happens). Thus le marin sauve le fermier does translate “the sailor saves the farmer”; but “I love you” becomes je t’aime (literally “I you love”).

We should be unsurprised by this ‘SOV’ form. Latin, from which French and Spanish are derived, allowed any word order in theory (subject/object relationships were demonstrated by endings, thus nauta servat agricolam and agricolam servat nauta both mean “the sailor saves the farmer”, even though in the latter case these are place ‘object, verb, subject’). However, in fact ‘SOV’ was typical in Latin (nauta agricolam servat). Thus the ‘SVO’ used when the object is not a personal pronoun in its daughter languages is the aberration; ‘SOV’ was the original norm.

Interestingly, only a minority of languages in the world are ‘SVO’; in fact more are typically ‘SOV’ than ‘SVO’, although it is close (and it depends a little on how you count). Both account for around 40-45%, with other orders also found. Close to home, an obvious variation is Irish, which is typically ‘VSO’. The other possible variations (‘VOS’, ‘OSV’ and ‘OVS’) are found, but are much rarer.

Some languages defy categorisation. German is ‘VSO’ in ‘interrogative clauses’ similarly to English; but it is ‘SOV’ in subordinate clauses, and ‘V2’ in main clauses (meaning the verb must be the second element in the sentence, regardless of what the first is). This is confused further by the point that if a subordinate clause comes before a main clause, it is taken to be the first element (or, alternatively, the main clause becomes ‘V1’ or ‘VSO’), and by the fact that cases are marked anyway (allowing theoretically free word order as in Latin) – als der Seemann den Bauer gerettet hat, war ich am Strand “When the sailor saved the farmer, I was on the beach” (literally “When the sailor the farmer saved, was I on the beach”). This sounds confusing, but is noteworthy because it is typical of Germanic languages (and retained also fully, with only minor differences, in Dutch; it was even present in French due to the aforementioned Germanic influence until the 16th century). Highly relevantly, English was originally this way too (hence the remaining apparent aberrations such as “nor is it” above).

Even languages which are categorised may be much freer than at first apparent. Spanish, for example, is quite frequently ‘VSO’ (Ha marcado Messi “Messi has scored”; literally “Has scored Messi” – though Messi ha marcado would also be acceptable, depending on emphasis), particularly in subordinate clauses (el gol que ha marcado Messi, literally “the goal that has scored Messi”, would be much preferred to el gol que Messi ha marcado).

Basic word order is one obvious aspect of a language’s structure you need to have at least some idea about before you can really learn it. There are other aspects to word order alone, of course – do adjectives come before the noun (as in English and German: ein starker Seemann “a strong sailor”) or after (as in Spanish and French: un marin fort)? Is the language “pro-drop” (strictly “null subject”) or does it require personal pronoun subjects (Spanish te quiero alone means “I love you”, even though there is no word for “I” in that clause; Latin was like this, and so are all its daughter languages except French, for reasons discussed in part here).

(We are talking basics here. The details of the order of adjectives, and the fact we do not give them any conscious thought, have startled lots of people on Twitter recently…)


There are of course other issues too, beyond word order (although word order is probably central). Does the language prefer nouns to verbs, for example? What tenses do its verbs possess, and what cases do its (pro)nouns have? Are there genders, and do adjectives have to agree (sometimes or always)?

If these things are known, at least basically, the learner is better prepared for the challenge ahead!