Hello! Probably you have found this article by looking for experiences of native Esperanto speakers. Or you were just interested whether they exist at all. Maybe, you have seen this video online that has also me in it or you tumbled into the reddit AMA several of us did a few years ago. You googled me and ended up here. Less likely you read my story in the Subcultures comic book about Esperanto by Dan Mazur or the one by Daniel Tammet. Now you are here, and welcome! You are on a blog that is about the Esperanto-community. All the other articles are in Esperanto, because I write about ourselves for ourselves. It is a reflection of my experiences, what I see and also commentary on the topics and events in the Esperanto world.
I am making an exception here to post a few articles in English, because I see the need to explain a few things about native Esperanto speakers. I see many things that are not true, many people are in disbelief that we do exist. So I am here to just tell you about what the experiences of native speakers are like. The truth is what we natives have most in common is that we are all different. We do not share the same stories. Our parents did not decide to teach us Esperanto for the same reason. We do not even talk the same amount, or to the same parents, or in the same situations in our daily lives at all. Honestly, all our stories are very different. The backgrounds, the cultures, the countries, the other languages we speak, I mean literally I cannot think of anything that makes us a group to an outsider apart from the language we share. My mom disagrees, she thinks that we natives were all born into intellectual families. She might be right, I don’t know.
On the other hand, no matter where we are in the world we share many things because of Esperanto. Because of what the language gave us, together with the challenges of constantly explaining that we do exist, that we are real. It is not a joke to us, not a hobby, not a free time, but our life. Even if as grown-ups many of us decide not to be active in the community anymore the knowledge of the language stays, and so does the childhood that was transformed by it.
I am planning on telling you a few stories about my life to give you perspective what it is like to be a native speaker. What are some of the things that happen to us. Happened to me. This is one of many stories. I can’t speak for all of us, only for myself. When I will talk about experiences in plural, it is because my friends told me about those things. But when we used to be together in the summer or meet elsewhere, we hardly ever discussed what it was like for us to be a native speaker. We did a lot more fun stuff than that.
I gained deeper knowledge even about my own upbringing, when I started leading discussion groups on the topic during Esperanto events. I was much older, in my mid-20s when I started doing that. The rooms are always full, so many people are interested every single time. Parents, children, speakers of the language were sharing stories, misconceptions, asked questions from one another, explained decisions around raising children with Esperanto.
For a very long period of time I did not speak about the language, I did not disclose I was a native speaker, because the younger I was the more people asked me about it. At some point I got incredibly tired of it, of the interrogation all the time. And there were always the same questions: what is Esperanto? (In my head: why don’t you just look it up?) Why do you speak it? (I have just told you I am a native speaker. Obviously it was at least one of my parent’s decision.) Say something! Please? Anything! Later: how many native speakers are there? And the older I was, the more insults came with it as well. Esperanto is not a language. How useless! You can’t possibly use it every day! Your parents could have / should have taught you something else. Why didn’t you learn French first / instead?
The questions varied depending on the circumstances. Those, who already speak Esperanto they don’t think that the language is useless. They sometimes thought that learning as a native speaker is cheating the idea of it being a second language for everyone. The ideals are hurt that way, but not many people were upset, I received maybe two-three comments like that in the past three decades. The criticism comes mostly from people, who don’t even speak an other language than their own. May it be Hungarian or English the attitude is the same when you don’t see the value in speaking any other language than your own.
The reason why I got more of any of these questions and maybe not other native speakers was that I became active in the community from a very young age. And I mean not the community of the Esperanto-families that meets on a yearly basis – there you don’t have to explain things, as everyone is a native speaker or raising one, but the youth/adult community. That part of the movement was different for me. Many people met me as obviously the youngest person (I was 6 or 7 years old in the beginning) at these events from early on – for years I stayed the youngest in these events, and every single time several new people asked me why I spoke the language so incredibly well. They were astounded to find out I was a native speaker. Many hadn’t even thought of that as being an option for this language.
Then later on this would almost become my trademark. When we met again, people would ask more experienced speakers: so, are there any native speakers at this event right now? They would point at me in an instant, saying: yes, Stela, she must be the youngest one around here. And there were other people too, but I was clearly just the tiniest and cute, chatty as well. So, not feeling threatened by a child they would come to me and start asking the same questions. I was called old for the first time when I was 12, because that meant more than a decade in the movement! It was meant as a joke, but made me feel sad.
And before you ask me whether I know how many native speakers there are, I have to tell you, I honestly have no clue. Maybe a 1000 I read somewhere, or more? Less? A few hundred sounds about right to me. But I might be totally off, because I don’t really know what the situation is like outside of Europe and I don’t even care. I know enough families from my childhood. Some of my friends decided to raise their children with the language as well. We are not going anywhere, that is for sure.
I am a second generation speaker, I know someone, who was the 4th in her family. Let me tell you a bit about my family. My parents both spoke Esperanto. Actually that is how they met. They became friends during the World Congress in 1983, which was in Budapest, Hungary. My mother is Hungarian, my father was French. I was born in 1987 when Esperanto was 100 years old and I was often lovingly referred to as the jubilee child. My parents decided that I would be raised in Hungary and learn Esperanto first, and later French as well. I have one older sister, who is not a native speaker, but learnt the language as a young child, when she was 6-7 years old. She speaks Esperanto very well.
My father, a primary school teacher, lived in France, and used to visit us every single break. I was raised by my grandfather and my mother. I have no idea why my father learned Esperanto. When you learn the language the first question is always: so, how did you discover it? And why did you learn it? As much as I am tired of explaining my native knowledge, many people are just as much exhausted recalling their own first impressions of the language. There are so many more interesting things to talk about. What is important that you somehow became part of the community and now you are here.
My mother learned Esperanto, because a friend of hers was interested, and this friend didn’t want to participate in the course alone. Mom ended up getting a teaching degree in the language together with Russian and history. The friend became my aunt, she married my mom’s little brother. They both forgot about the language. 8 years after graduation when the World Congress happened in Budapest my mom thought: wait, I learnt this language at some point, might as well try whether I remember it. It all came back very quickly, she jumped right into the community with several thousand people participating the congress that year. And that is how it all (re)started for her. My aunt probably still understands when someone speaks Esperanto to her, but never used it after university ever again, and she can’t speak it anymore.
When I was 5 years old my father himself made a book for me, and taught me how to read and write in Esperanto. That was his profession. He wanted to do the same with French, he started teaching me from a classic French reading book, but he died in a car accident just months later, when I was 6 and half years old, hence my knowledge of French is not native in any way. I don’t speak it well, my accent is terrible. I was stubborn, I didn’t want to learn French for a decade I was hurt and angry with him disappearing so fast from my life. I changed my mind when I was around 16, thinking that maybe it would still be nice to connect to my French side at some point, because something was clearly missing.
In the mean time we, so my mom, my sister and I stayed very involved in the community, went to events when we could, and my mother continued to speak the language to me. It was more difficult to travel abroad without my father. We always went to events when we could afford them. We hosted Esperanto-speaking people often. The classic family vacations for me were mostly Esperanto events. Not only, but pretty much. We didn’t only hang out with each other, but with many other friends at the same time. When the event for families was far away, we just couldn’t go, we went to youth camps instead.
It is also helpful and lucky for us that at the beginning of the 90s there were many families especially in Hungary, who used Esperanto as a family language. I don’t know why, we just were. Hence many events were organized by Hungarians, and that is how from a very young age (3) I met foreign children, who came to spend a week in the family summer camps. I understood very early on, that it is not only my family that speaks Esperanto, there are many others out there. It was also a period when the Esperanto club in Budapest still had its permanent place, and there were meetings every week. People knew about it, so they would stop by, because it was very close to one of the main train stations of Budapest. Many international people showing up from week to week throughout the years, giving presentations, making friends, celebrating together until the club stopped. In my whole childhood I was totally immersed in the language.
So from this introduction you can see that for me Esperanto is not just a language, it is an integral part of my life, and the community played an essential role in my upbringing. In the next piece I will write more about my attitude towards languages, and also in detail about who spoke which language to whom in my family, and what I have seen in other native speakers’ families.
For Part 2 click here.