Esperanto: what future in Europe?

, by Allan Malheiro

Esperanto: what future in Europe?

Esperanto has around 2 million speakers according to some estimations, making it the most widely spoken auxiliary language. Its aim is to unite people through a common — international — language and subsequently, to promote peace.

Esperanto, as an auxiliary language, is constructed, in other words, it was created directly by a human and has not developed naturally. It could be a promising language for many European federalists. This article is divided into three parts, the first two explore its history and the third presents Esperanto as a plausible unifying language for European federalists.

The Birth of Esperanto (1887-1914)

The founder of Esperanto, Ludoviko Lazaro Zamenhof was born in 1859 in Białystok, Poland. Given his experiences with antisemitism and the hardships of 19th century Poland, it became his conviction that a common language was needed to unite and allow for a fluid communication between people.

A hyper-polyglot, Zamenhof spoke 9 languages. This knowledge gave him a precise understanding of language families; Esperanto is mainly inspired by Latin, Slavic and Germanic words and rules. He also understood the difficulty in learning languages and therefore decided to make Esperanto simple. For example, there are currently only 16 grammar rules (such as names not having a gender or verbes not needing conjugation).

Esperanto witnessed its first language club appear in 1889 in Nuremberg. The first Esperanto newspaper, La Esperantisto, was established one year later. 1893 saw the appearance of Esperanto’s first major literary work, la Liro de la Esperantistoj, a collection of poems.

Esperanto: difficulties and persecutions (1914-1945)

In 1922, France forbade the teaching of Esperanto in schools but lifted this prohibition two years later. In 1938, Jean Zay, then French Minister of Education, facilitated its teaching. Because of the post-war enthusiasm for the language, many European leaders felt threatened by it. During the 1930s, Portugal (under the rule of Salazar), Romania (under the rule of Carol II) and then Spain (under the rule of Franco) restricted the teaching of Esperanto. Outside of Europe, in China and Japan, restrictions also emerged.

Initially the Soviet Union was rather lenient with Esperanto as many speakers were socialist and believed it could unite the workers of all countries. Some communist figures supported this theory such as Nicolas Marr, the official linguist of the URSS but most others were indifferent (though not hostile). This allowed the growth of Esperanto in the 1930s in the Soviet Union. Thereafter, Stalin progressively began considering Esperanto as a language of the bourgeois class. In 1937, during the Great Purges, many Esperanto speakers were accused of being “spies, Zionists and cosmopolitans” and were therefore imprisoned or executed. These persecutions only ended with the death of Stalin in 1953 but it greatly diminished the Esperanto-speaking community in Russia.

Nazi Germany too was initially not opposed to Esperanto. In a speech of 1922, Hitler even mentioned it as a language facilitating comprehension, but he quickly opposed the language thereafter. In his Mein Kampf, he mentions how Esperanto was a Jewish and Slavic language and considered it dangerous. A lot of Esperanto speakers and its defenders indeed were Jewish and/or socialists, subsequently making the language a natural target for the Nazi regime. The regime’s crackdown on communists caused most Esperanto clubs to shut down in March of 1933 and many others dissolved themselves. A few months after the Reichstag fire, 3/4 of Esperantist clubs had been closed. Some Esperantist clubs survived by adopting Nazism, such as the German Esperanto Association and National Socialist German Esperanto Association, yet even these ones displeased the regime and in 1936, it was decided to ban Esperantist associations. All Esperantist activity was officially prohibited in 1940.

Though it had a successful beginning, many believed Esperanto was almost dead with the numerous crackdowns it had faced, but the end of the Second World War also coincided with a fresh start: although weakened, it allowed for the rebirth of the language.

The re-birth of Esperanto (1945 - present)

Even if the end of the Second World War allowed Esperanto to grow again, the repression under totalitarian regimes and the war itself had considerably weakened the study of the language. The end of Nazism in 1945 and the death of Stalin in 1953, saw an increase of Esperanto speakers despite the fact that the Cold War limited exchanges between East and West. The role of international organizations, interested by the pacifist values defended by Esperanto, was also key for the rebirth of the language. In 1954, UNESCO established relations with the Universal Esperanto Association (the biggest Esperantist association) and in 1985, it encouraged UN member states to add Esperanto to their school curriculums.

The 1990s were also a decade of new events for Esperanto. In 1991, for instance, the first Pan-African Conference in Esperanto was held, showing the ties between federalist ideas and this language. In 1999, the Esperanto poet William Auld, was nominated for the Nobel Prize of Literature and although he did not receive it, it was a step forward for the Esperantist community.

The Internet is well known for having revolutionized language learning and communication and Esperanto is not an exception. First, it allowed to write Esperanto texts for free. Indeed, it is difficult to have a large variety of books in Esperanto because the language is spoken by 2 million people, making the sale of books not very profitable. Otherwise, in 2001, the Esperanto Wikipedia, Vikipedio ( was founded and it has now almost 350 000 articles : that’s more than Swahili, Yoruba and Greek combined ! On Vikipedio, there are more Esperanto articles than half of the 24 official languages of the EU.

It is now possible to learn Esperanto thanks to popular learning apps (where it has millions of learners) such as Duolingo, Drops, Memrise or LingQ and facilitate the creation and diffusion of numerous Esperanto online media like Libera Folio (world news), la Balta Ondo (world news), Scienca Revuo (scientific news) or China Radio International (Chinese news) and has allowed some mainstream media to have an Esperanto version such as Le Monde Diplomatique, a French newspaper. Finally, the Internet permitted the creation of social media and apps such as Amikumu, Pasporta Servo 2.0 or Tandem which enable Esperantists to communicate with one another.

That being said, despite these achievements, people often highlight the fact that Esperanto failed in its ambition to become a world “lingua franca.”

A lack of political successes…

Today, the language has emerged from the impact of two world wars and a handful of totalitarian regimes but a question still remains: what does the future hold for Esperanto, especially in Europe?

Saying that Esperanto has not been fostered by the political elite throughout history is a euphemism; generally discouraged or even persecuted, it was not promoted by any political entity. Therefore, Esperanto has always lacked political support. Even if it is not discouraged in Europe today, there is no country which has Esperanto as an official language, it is not taught at schools in most European countries and is often ignored from linguistic policies.

To revert this trend, some Esperantists tried to create a micro-party to compete in European elections: Europe Democracy Esperanto, which presented its candidature in France for the European Election of 2004 but it got a low score of 0,15% and 0,08% in 2019. In Germany, it did not reach enough support to participate in the election. However, some Esperantists interpret this by the fact that thematic micro-parties are rarely represented in the Parliament and that some European federalists rather vote for other mainstream pro-EU parties.

but advantages for Europe…

Firstly, it is important to precise that there are differences between Esperantists : some are European unionists, others federalists, considering Esperanto as a bridge to connect different communities while some are attached to the original Esperantist globalist vision, wishing to let it out of any political influence. Unionist and federalist Esperanto partisans argue that, despite a lack of political support, Esperanto can actually be a positive endeavor for Europe. Indeed, it is 10 times easier to learn for a European than other language speakers (approximately one month of study of Esperanto is equivalent to one year of French study for an English speaker for instance). Learning Esperanto is also a way to improve your understanding of other European languages because of its Latin, Germanic and Slavic influences, thus promoting linguistic diversity : indeed, many Esperantists highlight its usefulness as a bridge language and not a way to replace other languages.

The fact that Esperanto is spoken by only 1000 native Esperanto speakers can also be an advantage: it makes Esperanto a true universal language, one that can avoid “linguistic chauvinism.”

In addition to all of these arguments, another one was added in 2005: the Grin Report. A point of reference for many pro-European Esperantists, it was conducted by the Swiss economist and professor François Grin, on language teaching. Trying to answer the question of “what foreign language should we teach ?”, it analyzed 3 scenarios : (1) the current scenario based principally on teaching English, (2) teaching one or two important European languages and (3) teaching Esperanto.

The first scenario could be considered as the worst. It induces great costs for European countries and, reciprocally, great economic benefits for English-speaking countries. According to the report, the gain for the United Kingdom was estimated at 18 billion euros each year (without the benefits linked to cultural product exportations or even advantages in business negotiation conducted in English). For many Esperantists, English is also perceived as “imperialist” but necessary to learn though less legitimate in the European Union after Brexit. The second scenario is considered better but is more difficult (learning 2 languages is more difficult than one); it is especially unfair for Eastern European countries (it would be likely that the 2 languages chosen would be French and German) and will make mutual comprehension more difficult. Finally, the third scenario is the best according to the report : it could lead to 25 billion euros of yearly savings in Europe and many of its advantages previously explained are described in the report. All this being said, the conclusions of this report were not taken into consideration by the European Union or any of its member states.

… despite big challenges

Esperanto still faces big challenges. Its opponents consider it as a language without literature or a history, which is not necessarily correct but it is indeed true that Esperanto literature is far smaller than the literature of many European cultures, those with more numbers of speakers and that are much older. The biggest challenge of the language is not those actively opposing it but rather the indifference towards it.

All in all, the question on language policy, even if arguably considered of less importance to questions of defense or economic policy, can be a way to create stronger ties between Europeans and contribute to a federal Europe.

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