Why is inventing global languages doomed to fail? Globalization and the Esperanto lesson

by Xavi Liras

Esperanto is an artificial language created in 1887 with the original attempt to create an auxiliary language that would be spoken by everybody.

More than 100 years later we analyze this language and the reasons why it only had very limited success.

During this analysis, we will talk about the importance of learning languages and how a globalized society can be both very good for trade, but very dangerous for diversity and cultures.

1887 – Context – Europe, a continent in constant war

We are in a period where every decade there is a war between countries in Europe. The last war was still recent in the imaginary of European people. It was the Franco-Prussian war the decade before.

Europe was in the middle of the colonialist expansion, and there were a lot of tensions between the different colonial empires.

In this context, a Jewish-polish ophthalmologist called L.L. Zamenhof created a language called Esperanto, with the idea to help the different warring countries to have a common language they could use for diplomatic purposes.

We can see how logical this was during such a turbulent period.

Esperanto, a language inserted within the political idea of Globalization

However Esperanto was more than just an auxiliary language. It was part of a political agenda that pursued a more united world without borders and with open trade. This was the beginning of the modern idea of globalization and one of its early branches was Esperanto.

Did Zamenhof dream of a society where everybody would speak the same language?

He probably thought it as a long term aim. But it was part of this political ideology: to make a new world order with one language. The superficial idea behind this was to prevent more wars and more division between countries, by removing borders and languages.

But Esperanto, after more than 120 years, has failed its original aim. Why?

A language without culture

A language is not something you can create in a laboratory, like a vaccine or a medicine.

There's no such language that can exist without a culture. Because both stem from the same place. They stem from the trunk of human civilization. You can't have a language that is detached from that.

Even if your attempt is to create a neutral and plain “auxiliary language” people will refuse to speak it because language simply can't be separate from culture. That's why creating a language and pretending it to be widely spoken is not only a utopia, is just not possible.

And now you will tell me: “But Xavi, Esperanto lately is been learned by millions of people worldwide, thanks to Duolingo and other programs”

Yeah, and also the Elvish languages from Tolkien, Klingon, and other invented languages. People “learn” Esperanto as a curiosity and, also, as a tool to learn other languages. It's useful in its own way. But it doesn't fulfill the original purpose, which was to make people use Esperanto in the highest spheres of power and to ultimately make everybody use it as “lingua franca”

Latin – A successful example of lingua franca

Latin was used as lingua franca much after the Roman empire collapsed, up until the 18th century. It was a huge success as such. But, why?

Because Latin had a huge culture behind it. And the people using it were the descendants of the Greco-Roman culture. It's not a matter of randomness why those people used Latin to communicate with each other.

And you can tell me now: ”But, Xavi, nowadays people learn English without having to care about English culture”

No, you can get the basics of English by just doing that. If you want to get fluent, however, you need to get into the culture like it or not.

A language is a living creature

Each language has its own story, like a human being: a huge corpus, an evolution, transformations and changes, and disappearance. They have a life as if they were collective people. And, actually, they ARE collective people.

Languages were formed by telling stories. You can't separate languages from stories. If you don't have a culture you can't have stories.

A unique point of view

Languages are a continuous social dialogue within a culture. It informs the world about a particular point of view, unique in its richness and similar because of its humanity and its connections with other languages. That's why losing a language is like losing the whole world. It's like losing a treasure, forever. More than a treasure: a way of looking at the world that could have given you a different perspective. It's a tragedy.

Globalization, language diversity, and Peace

Is removing any trace of different languages and cultures the key for peace on the planet?

Is having a single culture and a single language the key for stability in society?

The answer is a big No.

You can't have peace when other people are trying to make you lose and forget your whole culture and your unique point of view in the world.

You can't have stability if everybody is the same and they force this sameness into you.

It's paradoxical: the more diverse a world is, the more chances of peace there is. Tribalism and war only appear when others want to force their way of life on you. What we need to remove is not languages or cultures, what we need to remove is evil inside ourselves. And this is a totally different subject we have to figure out together.

That's why my suspicion is that behind this attempt to eradicate languages comes from not the best intentions. It used to have good intentions when there were so many wars in Europe. But now we know that we can perfectly understand each other with translators.

Let's learn languages, instead!

Or we can do something even better: learn languages.

There is nothing that works better for peace than learning the language of your neighbor.

And the more languages we protect, the more perspectives we will have of the world. And nobody will be able to control us so easily. Languages are tools to understand the world. And the more we have, the better.

About the writer

Xavi Liras is a language teacher, and runs the blog Languages in Context, which provides tips on how to learn languages faster and easier.

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