Thursday, July 2, 2015

Esperanto, The Improbable

Israel Gollancz
Not a fan of Esperanto
Duolingo is just another chapter in applying technology to language learning (not to knock Duolingo, I think it’s great). Its forebears included language lessons by early twentieth century cylinder recordings (including Esperanto), and radio was considered, as noted in a July 2, 1922 article in the Washington Post. At the risk of belaboring the point, radio is one of those technologies that can be called “the Internet of its day”; a technology that transformed how information was handled (until the next transformation).

Radio brought the world closer, and Wikipedia notes that in the 1920s, shortwave radio grew rapidly, “similar to the internet.” As sounds were being transmitted over ever-greater distances, there came the question of what language those sounds would be in. Several pundits, including Professor Arnold Christen, suggested that Esperanto be the language of the airwaves.

This was taken quite seriously, and the Post article on news out of the London, gave some British reaction to the questions of Esperanto as the international language of radio, and the possibility of teaching language by radio.

Teach Languages by Wireless.
London experts have displayed great interest, but doubt the feasibility of the conference which has been summoned in the United States to consider the establishment of the universal language for the purpose of international communication by wireless.

Prof. Sir Israel Gollancz, of London university, is one who feels the task impossible.

“You might create a fictitious commercial language,” he said, “but id do not believe in any international language becoming a living force unless it is one of the living languages, such as English or French, or possibly even Latin, if living force could be given to it again. You might create a language for the elements of commerce, but I do not think it would even be useful for the science of commerce.”

Godfrey Isaacs, director of the Marconi Company, also expressed doubt as to the establishment of a universal language as a result of the development of wireless telephony. He thinks in regard to Esperanto that it is exceedingly improbable.

“At the same time,” he said, “we are keeping in view the possibility of teaching languages by wireless telephony. I think this will play a highly important part of the educational section of wireless and it will in time to come supersede the use of gramophone records for this purpose. I can foresee the engagement of eminent professors of language for the purpose of wireless tuition.”
There we have it: Godfrey Isaacs proposing online teaching in 1922. What would have the eminent Professor Gollancz say about the prospect of speaking his lectures into a microphone to be listened to by far-flung students? But both Gollancz and Isaacs seemed to reject Esperanto out of hand, both suggesting that it just wouldn’t work.

Both were high-profile individuals, with Isaacs being particularly well-connected. His brother, Rufus Isaacs, was the Viceroy of India at the time. Israel Gollacnz was known as a great Shakespeare scholar of his day, although his expertise extended to the works of the middle ages. Clearly, Professor Gollancz was no fan of Esperanto.

For that matter, despite the hopes of some, Esperanto did not flourish across the airwaves.
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