We at the British Council are currently involved in at least two projects on the theme of multilingualism. One is Language Rich Europe – you’re probably reading this post on the Language Rich Europe project blog right now – and the second is Poliglotti4.eu, which we’re working on in collaboration with our EUNIC colleagues (see Ulla and Julia’s piece last week). Both projects have received funding from the European Commission.
For these two multilingualism projects, we are recruiting a series of ‘Language Ambassadors’, i.e. people from all walks of life who believe in the benefits of learning other languages and are prepared to say so on camera. They introduce themselves, answer a series of questions about how they use languages in their work and social lives and tell us about a time when knowing another language came in handy. We’ve had tales involving plain-clothes policemen in Kazakhstan, lobbying in Esperanto for the recognition of Irish as an official language of the EU, and lessons for life in Jamaican patois.
I love making videos and volunteered to film and edit as many language ambassadors as possible to serve both projects (by the way, if you think you fit the bill and want to be interviewed, send me an e-mail). Examples of Language Ambassadors so far include a Belgian multilingual reggae artist (with tattoos on his head), the deputy major of London (no visible tattoos), and Seán Ó Riain, an Irish diplomat who speaks eight languages fluently including Irish, Welsh and, yes, Esperanto.
Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, Esperanto conjures up images of academic recluses, possibly also shortwave radio enthusiasts, who only ever have the chance to meet other like-minded individuals, and converse with them in this artificial language, at Esperanto Club conventions. I won’t go as far as to say “Well, nothing could be further from the truth” but I will say that since interviewing and editing our Language Ambassador Seán I have drastically revised my opinion. I also learned a lot in the process.
Five interesting things I didn’t know about Esperanto:
- It’s the only language that has a time and place of birth (1887,Bialystok) and is one year younger than Coca-Cola (1886).
- It was created by Dr. Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, a Belarusian-Jewish ophthalmologist.
- At the time, people in Bialystock (back then part of the Russian Empire) spoke Russian, Polish, German, Yiddish, Belarusian. According to Zamenhof, each group “spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies” and he wanted to create a neutral language of communication.
- Critics have said that due to its very strong European nature it cannot be considered a world language. However, the grammatical structure is very close to Chinese (although Zamenhof probably could not have known this).
- It’s very easy to learn: 3 years of studying French = 1 year of Esperanto.
And perhaps even more interesting were Seán’s arguments in favour of promoting Esperanto in schools (featured in this post). He reckons that of the people who take languages in school, a high proportion do not progress to a level where they feel that they are successful. And this, he thinks, puts them off learning other languages. With short Esperanto courses (Seán said he was challenged by an Australian Ambassador to learn it from a book in 3 months and succeeded) students can quickly get to grips with a foreign language, know what it’s like to be successful, and move onto a more complex language. Also, throughout the process they’ll learn lessons on grammar and pronunciation which will benefit further language learning.
As Seán sees it, learning another language, any language, is fun, and it gives you a better grasp of your mother tongue. He likes to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling’s “What do they know ofEngland, who only England know?” with “What do they know of English, who only English know?” In my case I know that I only learned about language tenses and language parts when I learned Spanish, so I tend to agree.
All Language Ambassador videos will be available soon on the Poliglotti4.eu and Language Rich Europe websites – until then I’d love to hear your thoughts on Esperanto, learning multiple languages, and whether you yourself would like to be a language ambassador. And if you are a shortwave radio enthusiast, you’re also invited to come forward and defend yourself!
Jonathan Brennan (Aptalops).