Wed, Jun 27, 2018 - Page 13 News List

The ones who hope: the journey of an artificial language

Taiwan’s Esperanto-speaking community tries to grow its presence

By Catherine Lin  /  Contributing reporter

Reza Kheirkhah, center standing, Abengo Cho, center seated, and Teddy Nee, far left, participate at an Esperanto seminar last year in Taoyuan.

Photo courtesy of Reza Kheirkhah

A French-language learner visiting the country for three weeks would likely find it ridiculous to dial the Academie Francaise and ask for a free hotel room; not so for devotees of the artificial language Esperanto and members of its unusually tight-knit community.

“If I telephone the Vietnamese Esperanto association and say that I’m an Esperantist in Taiwan, and I’m able to give a lecture about Vietnamese in Taiwan, someone will arrange that I get free lodgings. And while I’m in Vietnam, almost every day someone will show me around and have meals with me,” says Abengo Cho (卓照明), the compiler of an extensive Esperanto-Chinese Dictionary. “I spent 20 days in Vietnam. I didn’t speak any Chinese or English. I spoke only Esperanto.”

Though the Esperanto community was well-established in Taiwan in the early 20th century, its strength has since waned. Now, the few remaining Esperantists are trying to cultivate a new generation of speakers, connecting Taiwan to a far-flung network of enthusiasts committed to a language untied to any particular nation or ethnic group.

ESPERANTO’S HISTORY

Esperanto was constructed in 1887 by L.L. Zamenhof, a Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist who believed that a global lingua franca could help create a world without war. Its is currently spoken by roughly 2 million people, and derives its grammar and vocabulary primarily from a range of European languages. With only 16 grammar rules, no exceptions and words pronounced exactly as spelled, the language is designed to be easy to master.

Taiwan’s hub of Esperanto is Pingtung, where most Esperantists live and where most classes, clubs and other activities take place. Cho estimates that of the roughly 30 fluent speakers in the nation, around two-thirds reside in Pingtung.

During the Japanese colonial era, Esperanto, which has historically maintained a strong presence in Japan, easily put down roots in Taiwan. The Taiwanese Esperanto Association, initially the Taiwanese branch of its Japanese counterpart, published a monthly magazine, The Green Shade, distributed in more than 80 countries.

After the end of Japanese rule, the Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) regime associated Esperanto with Communism, creating a taboo against learning the language that only lifted in 1988 upon Chiang Ching-kuo’s (蔣經國) death.

Throughout its history, the growth of Esperanto has often been subject to the whims of political leaders, even though the Universal Esperanto Association has strictly maintained political neutrality since its founding in 1908. This is unsurprising for a language that is firmly attached to a values system — a utopian egalitarianism that celebrates peaceful cross-cultural exchange. That Esperanto is a language with an ideology is reflected in the Esperanto slang word samideano, or “like-minded person,” used to refer to a fellow Esperantist.

LIKE-MINDED PEOPLE

Why learn a language so few speak? One draw is its accessibility: Exhaustive resources are available online, and the language is simple enough for autodidacts to succeed. For avid language learners like 28-year-old Teddy Nee, who hails from Indonesia and says that he practices five to 10 languages a day, there is the novelty of an artificial language.

“The more I explore about conlang [constructed languages], the more interesting it is for me. It shows how much the languages we know affect our way of thinking, how languages work, and how we can make better languages,” Nee said.

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