Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Advantage of Esperanto — Proved by Science!

Kiel oni diras "human study protocol"
For all the snark, that’s actually true.[1] You can learn Esperanto more quickly than you can learn any natural language, in part because natural languages tend to all sorts of difficulties and irregularities. It’s bad engineering, that’s what it is! I’d like to say that no one would plan for a language to have irregular verbs, but the desire of conlangers[2] to complicate matters is endless.

Esperanto is free of the irregularities found in English, or for that matter Danish. Wikipedia notes that Danish has “many nouns with irregular plurals.”[3] Oh boy. While my usual (snarky) comment on Esperanto grammar involves the present-tense forms of the “to be” verb,[4] here I’ll discuss the plural: Esperanto plurals are formed by adding the letter j to the end of the word (Esperanto j is akin to the English y and forms a dipthong).
Easy verbs. Easy nouns. (And easy adjectives and adverbs for good measure.) Does all that ease in Esperanto make a difference? In the 1920s, Wellesley College, in Massachusetts, put it to the test. They did the first scientific study of Esperanto at an institution of higher learning in the United States. The early phase of this was reported in the Columbian Evening Missourian on December 18, 1922.
Wellesley Conducts an Esperanto Experiment in Psychology.
The psychology department of Wellesley college is conducting an experiment to determine whether or not Esperanto is more readily learned than any other language. Danish was chosen as a language likely to be unfamiliar to the majority of students. The experiment consists of ten alternate lessons in Danish and Esperanto. No study outside of class is permitted, so that the experiment may be a fair one.

At the end of the tenth lesson, some kind of psychological test will be given to determine which language the students have retained the most. It is safe to wager that Esperanto will, for the class is already reading poetry in Esperanto, while it has not yet mastered the Danish grammar.
I’m assuming that many Wellesley students, circa 1922, had learned French, Italian, or possibly even German prior to arriving at the college, so none of those would do. Any language where the students had to learn a different writing system (Russian, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese) would provide an additional difficulty, and probably invalidate the results.

Still, I have questions about their methodology. Why have the students alternate lessons? Wouldn’t it make more sense to randomly assign students to either Danish or Esperanto and then track their progress? We do know their sample size, since Amerika Esperantisto noted in their December 1922 issue that the Boston Globe reported on this in their November 17 edition:
—Esperanto Latest Tongue at Wellesley, an article telling of 350 students in a psychological test of Esperanto and Danish.
That's a lot of Esperanto speakers. What did they all do after the experiment? Just forget it all?

I’ve found ample evidence that Esperanto won the challenge, just as the Columbian Evening Missourian predicted. Ninety-two years later, the Wellesley web site contains no mention of Esperanto. (Their site has several references to Danish, though it is not one of the languages currently offered either.) The prize for winning this competition seems to be nothing. Wellesley did not decide that their young women needed a more thorough grounding in Esperanto once the experiment was done. While the experiment forbade them from studying outside of class, did any of them continue with Esperanto after the experiment? After all, they were at a point where they could read poetry.

The ease of Esperanto, though documented several times after the Wellesley experiments, does not seem to have endeared it to educators. The French worried that the ease of Esperanto would cause students to neglect French and English in favor of Esperanto (and we have to suspect that they were more concerned about the neglect of French), and further that it was simply Communist. The Wikipedia page Propaedeutic value of Esperanto lists fourteen studies conducted over a span of eighty-two years. All of them agree: Esperanto is easily learned. Just because science shows that it’s easy to learn, doesn’t mean people are going to learn it.

  1. Snark on a blog! That never happens!  ↩
  2. That is, those who construct languages.  ↩
  3. Danish grammar  ↩
  4. There’s one, it’s estas, and every other present-tense verb ends in -as. Conversely, every word in Esperanto that ends in -as is a present-tense verb.  ↩

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