An Irishman, a Pole, a Russian and a Frenchman are all in a room. What language do they speak? This isn’t a riddle or a joke but what happened to me last week. You see I’m just back from spending eight days in the town of Nitra in Slovakia where I participated in the Somera Esperanto Studado (Summer Esperanto Study). So what is Esperanto like in practice? What is the Esperanto community like, what do Esperantists do when they meet and how does Esperanto function as a language?
I’ve discussed Esperanto twice before on the blog and have been properly studying it for the last five months. However, because the Esperanto community is so dispersed, I had almost no actual practice speaking it. So although my level of reading was decent, I struggled to string a few sentences together when I first arrived. Plus I was nervous about the fact that I knew absolutely no one who would be there and had never been to Slovakia before. This was my first introduction to the world of Esperanto so I didn’t know what to expect.
SES is basically the same as the Gaelthact but in Esperanto. Every morning we would have four hours of classroom study based on our ability (I was B1). In the afternoon there was a host of talks on various topics, games, dance lessons and general free time. In the evening there would be a concert by an Esperanto artist (though the first night we had a concert in traditional Slovakian music which was surprisingly similar to Irish music). We were all staying in college dorms and had our meals in the communal canteen (which was where I got to know everyone). There were also trips and excursions to nearby towns and historical areas.
The first thing I noticed was how confident and natural the organisers were in their speech. On my first day I was blown away by advanced speakers rattling off Esperanto as rapidly as their native tongue. If anyone has any doubts as to whether Esperanto is a “real” language that properly functions, then I can tell you it certainly does. Conversations flowed as easily as a natural language and not as some hodgepodge that some people have the misconception of Esperanto as. It seemed perfectly normal for me to chat with friends, ask questions or discuss politics over a beer in Esperanto. What was also noticeable was how relaxed everyone was in their Esperanto. There was no need for speeches promoting Esperanto, no propaganda, no flag waving and I never even heard the Esperanto anthem. This wasn’t a political rally but just friends enjoying themselves.
Esperanto is more than just a language, it is also a culture. There were plenty of unique games and words such as krokodili, to speak your native language instead of Esperanto (which I am proud to say I rarely did). I got to meet denaskulo, people who speak Esperanto from birth. There were games like aligatejo, where you can’t speak either your native language or Esperanto. The Bamba is a popular song but there is also a game where a group of people link arms and dance in a circle around other dancers. Those in the circle then choose someone in the outside circle who they kiss and switch places with. There was also table tennis, card games, juggling lessons, dances classes (in the tango and swing among others), ukulele classes, singing and going to the bar. Esperantists like to party as much as the rest of us, but there was also the gufuejo, a mellow place open after the concerts where you could drink tea and peacefully chat with friends maybe while listening to relaxing music. Esperantujo is also very open to other cultures (particularly minority ones) and for the international evening (where people gave a display of their native culture) I sang two songs in Irish (the only time in my life I’ve had the nerve to sing onstage).
I had an amazing time. I’ll admit the first day or two were rough, when I couldn’t understand what people were saying and didn’t know anyone, but I soon realised that everyone was in the same boat. It was incredibly easy to make friends and I made some great ones. By the third day I was comfortable and used to speaking Esperanto and all I had to do was sit beside someone at a meal to become friends. There was an amazing mix of people from children, teenagers, students, parents, to the elderly and even a dog. There was more than 250 people from 28 countries and such was the level of mixing that it was rare to find many people from the same country in any group (the Russians and Germans being the exception). In fact advanced speakers don’t have much of an accent so it wasn’t obvious where they came from, which after all, didn’t matter.
I did notice one thing about learning styles. At first I was placed in a class that strongly reminded me of being in secondary school. The teacher discussed grammer rules on the board while we sat in silence and took notes. On the second day I changed to a different teacher (at the same level). She didn’t have a blackboard but would instead simply talk to us and have us talking the whole time. While I didn’t take any notes, instead I became much more comfortable with the language. Grammar rules and vocabulary lists can be done anytime, actual speech and confidence was something I needed much more work on. I think this is a lesson for how we teach languages in general. To much emphasis is placed on grammar and doing things exactly right and not enough on getting students engaged with the language and actually using it.
I had such a great time that I was actually very sad and lonely after I left (and still am a bit now). It still feels a bit strange to be speaking and writing in English now. I was so engrossed in Esperanto that returning to Ireland was like returning to a life I forgot I had. In fact it got to the point where I was automatically translating my thoughts into Esperanto. I miss the constant buzz and activity and always being around friends. I now truly feel like an Esperantist and am already looking at flights to Germany for JES at New Years. Ĝis la revido!