Why China Is a Fertile Field for the Teaching of Esperanto

Ronald Glossop, Professor Emeritus, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville
at the ILEI-konferenco and UK Tago de la Lernejo in Copenhagen, Denmark, July 2011

Is China a good place for the teaching of Esperanto? Esperanto is a Western language which is much more similar to most of the languages of Europe than to the Chinese language. Thus it seems that Chinese probably would not be able to learn Esperanto as easily or quickly as Westerners. Nevertheless I want to argue that at present China is a fertile field for the teaching of Esperanto.

Why? One reason is that the government of China was and is generally more helpful to Esperanto and Esperantists than other national governments. In China the national government supports the publication of reviews and magazines. One can read, hear, & see Esperanto broadcasts every day at esperanto.cri.cn and www.espero.com.cn. The government hires many people (even foreigners) to use Esperanto in their everday work. How many other national governments spend so much money to support the use of Esperanto?

A second reason to teach Esperanto in China is the number of people who live in that country. There are 1.34 billion people who live in China. Almost one out of every five people on the planet live in China. If one wants to attract many people to our global language, we should teach Esperanto where many people are, namely in China. Furthermore the influence of China in the world is growing, so it would be good for Esperanto if many Chinese would use it.

A third important reason is the fact that now in China all children must learn the pinyin version of the written Chinese language. They have to learn an alphabet very similar to the English alphabet which can be used to write the sounds of the present Chinese language. Think about that! The children have to learn to use a phonetic Latin alphabet. The principle is similar to the written side of Esperanto. Therefore when Chinese begin to study Esperanto, the pronunciation of the letters and words is a relatively easy thing for them. Chinese Esperantists tell me that although they can’t understand the meanings of the Esperanto words, there is no problem in pronouncing them. Consequently at the beginning of the study of Esperanto the pupil is able to think, “I can do this.”

The fourth reason that China is a fertile field for the studying of Esperanto is that now in China the children and young people have to study English. In the non-English-speaking Western countries one generally thinks that in the schools there exists a conflict between the studying of English and the simultaneous studying of Esperanto. Consequently one must decide whether to teach Esperanto or English. In such a situation one is able to think that English (and also other national languages) is somewhat of an enemy or at least a rival of Esperanto.
But what is the situation in China? It would seem that the requirement of the Chinese government that pupils must learn English would not help the teaching of Esperanto. Nevertheless for the Chinese the learning of English and the learning of Esperanto actually help one another in many ways. First, there are many similar words with the same meaning. For example, there is “tablo” and “table.” There is “forko” and “fork.” There is “blua” and “blue.” There is “sociologio” and “sociology.” There is “elefanto” and “elephant.” There is “shuo” and “shoe.” There is “orangxa” and “orange.” There is “rapida” and “rapid.” There is “shi” and “she.” There is “jes” and “yes.” And so forth. Consequently, when the Chinese pupils are learning English they are at the same time learning many words in Esperanto and vice-versa. They also are able easily to use an English-to-Esperanto dictionary even if they can’t correctly pronounce the words in English.

The learning of Esperanto also helps with regard to learning the grammar of English. In English the grammar is often not evident or even hidden, but Esperanto can clarify the situation. For example, consider the English sentence “Monday I will see you” [Esperanto: “Lundon mi vidos vin”]. Grammatically the subject is “I” [“mi”] and the verb is “will see” [“vidos”] and the direct object is “you” [“vin”]. But what grammatical element is the word “Monday” [“Lundon”]? Having studied Esperanto, one can see that in this English sentence an important preposition is lacking. The true significance of the first word in that English sentence is “On Monday” [“Je lundo”]. The word “Monday” actually is an object of a preposition which doesn’t appear at all in English. This is but one example of the way in which the studyng of Esperanto can help Chinese pupils understand the grammar of an English sentence.

The third way in which for Chinese the studying of English and Esperanto are mutually helpful is related to the punctuation, which is different from that of the Chinese language. The punctuation in written English and in written Esperanto is very similar. One now often uses written language in e-mail messages and printed materials. Consequently the capability to correctly use punctuation is an important matter.

Presently the Chinese government requires that all pupils learn English. Undoubtedly it would be a better situation if the children had to learn Esperanto in elementary school before they have to learn English. Fortunately in China there already exists an elementary school where the children study Esperanto before they study English, namely, the Baiyangshujie school in the city Taiyuan. There the school principal WEI Yubin (Jado) (jado.wei at gmail.com), wants to show the Chinese government that children learn English better and more rapidly if they have previously learned Esperanto.

Nevertheless I think that in China even the current required learning of English helps in relation to the learning and use of Esperanto. The Chinese language is so dissimlar to European languages that the learning of Western languages (even Esperanto) is a very difficult matter for Chinese. Consequently maybe not many Chinese would decide to try to learn such languages on their own. But when the young people have to learn English in the schools, they consequently have a good base for learning Esperanto. Furthermore after they have studied English and even take a glance at Esperanto, they immediately realize that Esperanto is much easier to learn. Undoubtedly in China the English language is much used, but for many Chinese the knowledge of English is completely passive. Many of them can read it but are unable to speak it or write it well. In China some Esperantists first learned English and afterwards realize that because of that they can more easily learn and use Esperanto. At the same time the Chinese who have already learned Esperanto can tell other Chinese about the usefulness of Esperanto in relation to the learning of English.

In order to discover whether Chinese agree with my ideas about the relation between the learning of English and the learning of Esperanto I previously sent a copy by e-mail of my similar lecture to Professor GONG Xiaofeng (Arko) (xfgong2002 at 163.com), a professor at Nanchang University in China. Here is her response. “I read through your article. I totally agree with you. It is a matter of my own learning. At first the prior study of English greatly helped my learning of Esperanto. Esperanto [also] greatly helped my relearning of English when I had almost forgotten it from 20 years earlier. During recent years I have found that my listening capability in Esperanto has improved and because of that I also noted an improvement in my listening capability in English. So you are right.”

I am not the only Esperantist who thinks that China is a fertile field for the teaching of Esperanto. Professor Dennis Keefehas (keefeinchina at gmail.com) already taught two years at the University of Nanking. He has worked well with other instructors of Esperanto in China. He will now organize a University of Esperanto on the island of Hainan during the coming January. The plan is to provide customary 40-hour university courses for the Chinese students who have already learned Esperanto. They not only will study Esperanto. They will use Esperanto to learn about other matters. Dennis agrees with me that China is a good place to teach Esperanto.

I still think that in China the best system would be to teach Esperanto first in the elementary schools and then English as is already being done in the elementary school in the Chinese city of Taiyuan. Nevertheless I think that it is a good idea to teach Esperanto in China also in the universities after the young people have had to study English.