In 1887, Ludwig Zamenhof, a Polish ophthalmologist, published a guide to the Esperanto International Language, which he hoped would bring the world closer to peace by bridging the communication gap between peoples. While this dream has not yet come into fruition, the language has become popular around the world for its linguistic significance and its ease of acquisition.
The language’s roots are Latin-based, with its vocabulary taken from a variety of sources, including the modern Romance languages and from English, German, Polish, and Russian. Zamenhof believed that this constructed language would allow people who speak different native languages to communicate, while at the same time, retaining their own languages and cultural identities.
While the language was never officially adopted, it has ebbed and flowed in popularity and obscurity around the world since its creation.
Esperanto was once vastly popular in China and was promoted by some of China’s most famous writers. In 1986, China hosted the World Esperanto Congress. During this time, Esperanto was a popular foreign language amongst the Chinese people because of its simplicity compared to English, with an estimated 300,000-400,000 speakers (Beijing Association for Esperanto, or BAE). After the surge of foreign languages entering into China in the 1970s and 1980s, the number of speakers declined. However, China hosted its second World Esperanto Congress in 2004, and the language is still a foreign language exam option in Sichuan today.
The World’s Changing Attitude
In the early 1920s, the League of Nations proposed to accept Esperanto as their working language. While it did not become the body’s accepted language, it was added to their educational curriculum.
During the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, Esperanto’s movement slowed due to fear (on both sides) that the language could be used for enemy propaganda. And in the 1950s, the US published military phrase books in Esperanto, which were used up until the 1970s, to mock enemy for
ces. By the 1970s, the language began to spread again to new parts of the world. Although it’s not recognized as an official language by any country today, it has yet to disappear.
With the spread of English, many assumed that Esperanto would die out, yet today, because of the visibility it’s gained from the digital revolution, the language is still adding followers. The popular language-learning mobile application, Duolingo, added Esperanto to its catalog of languages in 2015, and it quickly gained more than 600,000 active users. Today, the language is spoken by nearly 2 million people as a second language in 115 countries.
Learn more about Esperanto