Hello, and welcome back! This is the second part of my series about what it is like to be a native Esperanto speaker. Just to get you into the mood I start with two little gems: I am so native that I started walking during an Esperanto event, and even my first word was in Esperanto: vidu! As the tram was passing by I pointed at it and said: look! So, let’s dive in and entangle even further the sometimes challenging relationships of what languages I use and with whom.
As established in the previous blog post, my father was French, and my mother is Hungarian. It made sense to them that when we are together, we would all speak a language that everyone understands. My father never learned Hungarian – if you are unfamiliar with it, Hungarian is considered to be one of the most difficult languages to learn. My sister was not a native Esperanto speaker. How is that possible? Well, easily. My mother adopted my sister when she was three years old. As you probably know the adoption process takes a very long time. My mother coincidentally met my father the summer before the adoption was finalized. A few years later, when it became clear that my mum would stay an active participant of the community she decided to teach my sister Esperanto, when she was around 6 years old. My mum declared: she shouldn’t stay out of the fun! I was born half a year later, so when the four of us were all together we used Esperanto, and travelled to various events. However, I only replied in Esperanto to my father, because I knew he wouldn’t understand anything else. I continued to speak Hungarian to my mum, my sister, and my grandfather. While my father was in France my mum did not speak Esperanto to my sister, only to me.
And here I have to demonstrate why this is important. My mother explained it in one of the discussion groups I led. In order to be able to speak Esperanto as a parent you have to find a way to express loving-kindness as well. It is one thing to practically know how to speak the language, but you have to make a conscious decision to find words that you will use as terms of endearment. I was called: urseto – bear cub, steleto – starlet, (bel)koreto – sweetheart my whole childhood. Actually I am still called Stela, Steleto these days, maybe you noticed the title of this blog.
Several parents present agreed with my mom, while many more parents-to-be shared exactly these concerns. Can you be as affectionate to your child in Esperanto as in your native? Yes, you can! I think that is the unconscious reason why my mum talked Hungarian throughout her childhood to my sister – so not switching after teaching her, and Esperanto to me. Of course, you might wonder why I didn’t reply in Esperanto at all. Honestly? I don’t know. Whenever I could speak Hungarian to someone, I would do that. I would thoroughly check first if someone understood Hungarian, and if surely not, then and only then I would switch to Esperanto. There were many Hungarians, who would pretend not to understand me, and I knew they were testing me. Ever single time this happened I would become even more stubborn. These people, pushing me to converse with them in the language to check my level… I felt like a clown, needing to entertain them. I was reluctant to do that. At some point I said well, actually, we don’t have to speak at all, and I would just walk away. People thought I was rude. Oh, the irony.
I consider myself lucky that my mum never pushed me to reply to her in Esperanto. She said: you’ll learn the language anyway, and she was right. However, I do know some parents, who did insist with their children, and pretended they didn’t understand the other native language. I don’t think that is a good idea at all. Children are not stupid. If you want to develop resentment in your children fast, only then go on and do that.
As you can see, a lot depends on the parents, what their attitude is when they – or just one of them – speak Esperanto to you, and what they use it for. Their responsibility about the usage of the language is much bigger. With any other language you are surrounded with will influence you about your life and thoughts. And by that I mean all other people, school, media and institutions. Nobody will question why you speak that language, because everyone else speaks it. But with Esperanto as a parent you have to be smart about what kind of reason you give to your children and to others. You cannot be unsure about your goal at all. You’ll be questioned about it all the time. If your justification is not good enough, at the least you’ll be frowned upon. I know families, who partly because of wanting to avoid the questioning never speak Esperanto in public, only at home. Some out of respect don’t want to speak a language when others present don’t understand.
Not my mum. She spoke to me all the time in Esperanto, no matter what. Yes, many times we got into trouble for that. One time in school my teacher accused my mother of hiding something on purpose from her. Mum replied: “I speak to my child in Esperanto in all situations, and I am not making an exception for your either”. Well, that teacher didn’t make my life easier at school. However I had many others, who invited me to read out loud poems translated to Esperanto, or give a presentation on an Esperanto event I had been to. I had plenty of good experiences and genuine interest in school next to some insults.
I remember my family members, neighbours, and close relatives were all being supportive about my mum’s decision. Probably it was also due to my parents having two different nationalities. It made sense to the outside world as well to share a language. Though many would check whether they planned on teaching me French as well at some point. When I was young, my friends would know I spoke the language because they heard my mum speak it to me, relentlessly, in every situation possible. Because it was only one way, if they hadn’t heard her, they wouldn’t have known otherwise. Now with social media it is different, I post many things in Esperanto. New acquaintances learn about me this way, not by asking my mom what language she speaks to me. I sometimes joke that Esperanto speakers made facebook spread so fast, because we were desperate to share pictures with each other after the events we went to. I was invited to the platform by an old friend from the community in 2007 and initially used it only to connect with speakers abroad. In Hungary we used to have a different social site back then.
Because of my upbringing I must have thought for a few years that every native speaker has parents of different nationalities. I was the most surprised to find out that was not the case. When years later I asked these parents why they chose to raise their children with Esperanto most of the time they said it would be very useful for the children to be bilingual. Or they were getting into the language, learning it shortly before or while expecting and then decided to teach their children Esperanto to improve their own knowledge. There are many idealists as well, of course.
But those, who taught their children very consciously to give them a head start in life, well, they were right. Natives are bright. Especially when it comes to languages. Growing up they usually end up speaking four-five languages at a high level. If they were raised trilingual and we add the usual two-three languages that you can study or specialize in at school, many end up speaking six-seven languages fluently. I speak Hungarian, Esperanto, and learned German and English at school. I went to a bilingual school, and studied abroad in English. My French and Dutch are okay, and for German my knowledge stays passive, but I do understand almost any conversation.
Esperanto natives inherently understand the importance of speaking languages. The experience of different nationalities and the practice that we wouldn’t be able to understand each other otherwise can start very early. Of course this exposure to different languages also depends on which part of the world you are in. I am well-aware that having been raised in the middle of Europe made me sensitive to the existence of other languages much easier and faster than if I had lived in a country that is size of a continent and has only one official language. I travel 100-200km (or miles) in any direction and I am in a different country. In Europe we are confronted with the need to learn other languages very fast, the European Union has 24 working languages for a reason. Some campaign to get Esperanto as the official working language for the same reason.
I think natives all over the world don’t take for granted that whenever they go to a country the people there should speak their own language, though you can find Esperanto speakers everywhere. And I mean in every corner of the world. But of course I am referring to my other language, Hungarian. I know that not many people speak it outside of my country, and I don’t even expect them to. I think it is absurd to expect anyone to speak your own language abroad, unless the other country also has your language as an official one.
For me it is astonishing that many people do not even make a courtesy effort to learn a few words in the local language when they are travelling, at the same time dare to complain about the level of the locals’ language knowledge, which is not their native. To me that attitude is nonsense. I do understand that is how language imperialism works. It is not an accident I am writing this article in English, I would like many people to read it and learn from it. When travelling around a bit, and seeing that all countries have different languages in Europe that is when many people start thinking that the idea of one common language would be awesome. It would make things so much easier. And not why everyone else does not speak my language. Some start googling and find Esperanto, some try to create their own universal language, many insist that English is the universal language.
I look at languages from a very practical perspective. I don’t collect them, I don’t aim to be a polyglot and speak 10 languages. I speak the ones that I need for my life. I use these five languages daily. I am learning Swedish as a hobby due to my love for Swedish culture. I was educated a lot about minority languages by people, who truly believe in the idea of the universal language because of its role in preserving languages. We know that many parents drop their native minority language as they find it useless to teach it in a globalised world. That makes me really sad. Don’t do that, keep your languages alive! Do you know how many times I was told Esperanto is useless? The same about Hungarian! But for whom? For me they are not only useful, but essential for my life, my relationships, and self-expression. Children can easily learn 3-4 languages as native (even more). I picked up a lot about the existence of various minority languages only through Esperanto. I thought growing up: one country, one language. How naive I was! I ended up studying politics, so I also learned a thing or two about borders and countries (more useless than languages, I can tell you).
Every single time I heard about languages that are easily dismissed as useless was through the Esperanto community. I met people, who explained about the heritage of Occitan or Arpitan in France, the Basque or Catalan political and language issues in Spain, or the Chuvash people from Russia. Being part of the community made me interested in history that neither of my teachers managed to foster in me. I was very good at geography for obvious reasons, and grammar as well. While most pupils found literature more bearable than grammar, I was fascinated by the details of the Hungarian language. I have a hunch where that interest came from.
On the other hand people expect me to know a lot about other constructed languages just because I am a native speaker of the most successful one. It might be a compelling topic, but I simply don’t care about conlangs, and there is a straightforward explanation for that. For me and my identity the fact that Esperanto is a conlang is irrelevant. In my head I understand it is special or different and I get the fascination about it. In practice it doesn’t compute.
Nothing will change the origins of the language. It was artificially created, and that is how it is. Many people are very fast and determined to remind me of that every single time. Especially of the fact that it is not a natural language. At the same time the people, who criticize the language might not notice that its imperfections, the way it works, and how we use it actually make Esperanto extremely similar to natural languages. In my head it is just like any other language. I speak it or at least type it every single day. I can absolutely and fully express myself in Esperanto, I am comfortable using it, I often think in it. I laugh at people, who try to convince me that this level of expression is not possible. Well, it’s been going very well for the past 30 years, so there you go, learn the language and try it for yourself. As many people do!
So while I understand that there are differences with other natural languages for me there just aren‘t. Hence my interest in conlangs is non-existent either. I know the most about Toki Pona, because it used to be taught a lot at a certain point in Esperanto events, some discussions about Volapuk or Ido show up every so often in my friends’ twitter feeds, and probably I could try to remember some more just to show I am familiar with some, but I can’t be bothered. I never cared enough to learn any of them.
So what is the essential difference between the language knowledge of a native speaker and a learner of the language? Honestly, I would say not much. Of course I am relying here on what many people told me about their learning experiences with Esperanto. Just by hearing two people speaking Esperanto you wouldn’t be able to distinguish who the native speaker is. And you can get to that level relatively fast. Recently I was absolutely amazed by a young Dutch man’s fluency and to discover he started learning Esperanto only a few months prior. You would think that because he is so young and speaks at such an outstanding level he must be a native speaker. Well, he isn’t. Many people assumed that he must have been involved in the movement for at least several years. He hasn’t been. Mind-blowing.
As for the accent? Well, everyone has their own accent and the other native language will have a huge effect on it. If your parents’ accents are strong, you learn it from them. If they are more neutral, you imitate that. If you have watched the video on youtube, you can hear we all have different accents. You can listen to mine separately in any of my podcasts as well. I have a slight Hungarian accent when I speak any other language. To get to this level of English I needed more than a decade. Any language for Hungarians is difficult, we don’t have the help of overlaps, and I even have the advantage of being a bilingual person. For anyone to get to my level of Esperanto, maybe six months are needed as the example above makes it clear.
Contrary to the beliefs changes and reforms to the language sometimes happen. The way it works is not through some kind of authority. If you have an idea to improve the language you start using it, while explaining it to your friends or at events why you think this new idea is better than what we already have. These days there are discussions about trying to balance the gender issues in the language as originally the male equals the neutral. If enough people use the changes, it gets accepted gradually. Many ideas don’t make the cut. Words are easier to get accepted, as they are needed, such as the new expressions about computer science. So people in the community came up with words using the existing roots and created the missing parts of the vocabulary. An other example is „mojosa”, which translates to „cool” in English. A word clearly needed in the youth culture. Mojosa is an abbreviation of modernjunstila (modern youth style) – it stuck and we use it 15 years later as well. The main reason why not many changes happen in the language altogether, because at the end of the day, they are not needed.
My mom stopped speaking Esperanto to me, when I was around 20. It just happened naturally. I heard the same from other natives. Many parents stop at some point when the children are fluent anyway. In our home, my niece started being around a lot. She is not a native speaker, though understands a few words, sentences. So our common language became Hungarian once again.
Maybe the only big difference of being a native speaker compared to everyone else is that we get to become part of the community much earlier. And that is a present I am eternally grateful for. Many people say they wish they learned the language when they were younger. And that is because the most vibrant part of the Esperanto world is the youth. People many times disappear after spending a decade in the youth movement only to reemerge when they are pensioners. This thought makes me introduce the next topic: love, relationships and life in the Esperanto community when I was young and what happens later on.