Sunday, May 31, 2015

Esperanto at USC

As opposed to teaching
the old Esperanto?
In the early twentieth century, several American universities—formally or informally— started Esperanto classes. At Harvard, these were promoted by visiting celebrity professor Wilhelm Ostwald, but in many places, language professors became interested in the new language and after learning it started teaching it. Sadly (from the point of view of the Esperanto movement) the rising tide of Esperanto classes soon receded, and if I had to make a guess at the number of colleges and universities in the United States where you could study Esperanto in a classroom, I’d put the number at one.[1]

There is a good reason for schools to teach Esperanto: it’s a good starter language. One of the justifications for studying a foreign language is that it will help you understand language better. It will even help you in your native language. Esperanto, since it’s stripped of all the irregularities of natural language, helps you get to the concepts faster, since you’re not dealing with the intricacies of seven strong verb forms, or multiple ways to make a plural, or things like that. If you want to learn French, you might actually be better off with a year of Esperanto (assuming you know no other language but your own), and then jumping into French after that.

In the days when it looked like every university would be offering Esperanto, the University of Southern California was one of the pioneers in this movement that didn’t last very long at all. When Professor James Main Dixon announced an Esperanto summer course in 1906, there wasn’t much Esperanto activity in the United States. This precedes the establishment of the Esperanto Association of North America by two years (although the American Esperanto Association was just over a year old). It’s a short item in the May 31, 1906 Los Angeles Herald.

Lessons in Universal Language Will Be Part of the University Course
An interesting feature of the summer session of the University of Southern California will be the course in the new universal language, Esperanto, to be given by Prof. James Main Dixon, one of the university’s most versatile instructors.

The course is expected to prove profitable not only to students of languages but also to all others as well who are expecting to enter a professional line of work.
Professor Dixon was the head of the Auxiliary Language Association at USC, which existed as late as 1909, but which seems to have vanished after that.[2] Dixon was, according to Wikipedia, a professor of English Literature who went on to be a professor of Oriental Studies and comparative literature (his time in Japan probably prepared him for that). In 1909, Professor Dixon was a councilor (that is, regional representative) of the EANA for the Western Division, as well as the president of the Auxiliary Language Association of the University of Southern California.

That group lists more members in the 1909 Adresaro of the EANA than the Los Angeles group (with which there seems to have been no overlap). Of the fifteen members, all but one (J. J. Engbrecht) list “Univ. of Southern Calif.” as their address, making it clear that this was a university thing (the Esperanto Society of Los Angeles had only eleven members in 1909). Though something of a pioneer in Esperanto, Professor Dixon seem to have abandoned the language pretty quickly too.

  1. There does seem to be a free course at Stanford, and in looking about the web, I’ve found that as recently as 2014, it could be taken for 2 credits (if you jump through administrative hoops). Because it’s Esperanto, it’s two hours per week, proficient in a year.  ↩
  2. By 1919, the only Esperanto groups in California were in the Bay Area, which had three, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco.  ↩

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