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Motivating the Gifted
High School Language Student


It’s been decades since I drafted the following little essay as a puffy promotional piece for Esperanto summer courses at San Francisco State University, probably sometime in the 1980s. I was surprised to see it dignified as a free-standing pamphlet published jointly in 2002 by the Esperanto-USA and the < https://esperanto.ca/>Canadian Esperanto Association.

Rereading it decades later, its general observations still strike me as both informative and provocative. Here I have updated it a bit, but the general argument is unchanged.

DKJ, May, 2022

Motivating the Gifted
High School Language Student


To begin with, I confess that it is very pretentious on my part to write this, since I teach in a college, not a high school, and since I am actually an anthropologist and not really a language teacher at all.

It is true that I had a good deal of “input” into our campus Chinese program (though it has never been clear to me just how you say “input” in Chinese) and that I have taught summer-school Esperanto courses sometimes. And I have studied a lot of languages and use several in my research. But I am not, basically, a language teacher; just the garden-variety kind of anthropologist.

Nevertheless I have noticed something that might interest language teachers. It grows out of many years of association with “Esperantists”; those are the people who surface from time to time in the world of education and keep wanting us all to learn Esperanto as an international auxiliary language. (They are nice enough people, when you get to know them, although they do tend toward monomania when you get them onto the subject of foreign languages.)

The Magic of High School

Now an interesting thing about Esperantists in general, both in North America and elsewhere, is that the most fluent ones are often people who got interested in the language when they were in high school and studied it in a fit of adolescent enthusiasm.

And an interesting thing about these Esperantists in particular is that after they have learned Esperanto, (1) they are awfully keen to learn other languages, too and (2) they are especially interested in global culture and international affairs. As I have associated with the Esperantists and have spoken with the students taking the language at the University of California (where I do my anthropology teaching) and at San Francisco State University (where I got myself mixed up in an Esperanto summer program), these earlier observations were underlined more and more.

The “Language Nerds”

It seems as though there is a certain kind of very intelligent high school student who becomes absolutely fascinated with the regular grammatical structure and ingeniously agglutinative vocabulary of Esperanto.

The language is certainly no Pig Latin, but it is nevertheless easy enough that motivated students find they can make far faster progress learning Esperanto than they made learning any other language they may have been studying. Almost before they know what is happening, they discover —and to me this is the interesting point— that they are glimpsing a whole lot of intellectual issues about language learning that they never noticed before. Literary style, the relationship between literary works and living language, linguistics, and sociolinguistics all these become conscious problems, usually for the first time, and the notion that these are issues that transcend individual languages transforms a student’s understanding about language in general. (You have probably guessed why a college professor finds this intriguing!)

The “Globalists”

But Esperanto speakers are an international crowd. The students also begin to develop a very immediate awareness of the complexity of the world outside North America, and the desirability of knowing about other countries and interacting with people in them. Since there are Esperantists nearly everywhere, no country can be dismissed as outside an Esperantist’s range of interests. In a well-taught high school Spanish class, students come to appreciate Mexico and Argentina. But Esperanto study also raises awareness of Russia, Mali, Korea, and France.

Furthermore, the Esperantists are well enough organized (with all sorts of blogs, web sites, and magazines, published from Rotterdam to Peking and from Rio to Kyoto) that it is not too much trouble to find a few interesting bloggers or Facebook friends, and this can put several countries on the map for a high school student that weren’t really there before. (I recall the astonishment of a young friend when she discovered that Bulgaria was where ancient Thrace used to be and that she was talking with a latter-day “Thracian.”) This, too, encourages an awareness of an international order.

It is true that such awareness begins in the parochial perspective of a rather unusual language movement, but the perspective inevitably broadens, and those of us who teach social sciences can be justifiably envious of the Esperantists’ ability to instill world awareness at the flick of a French or Iranian Facebook friend while we struggle in our classes against the sometimes adamantine ethnocentrism of the mono- or at best bi-cultural adolescent mind.

Esperanto as a Propaedeutic

Once their appetite has been whetted, high school students often approach foreign languages in ways or with perspectives they otherwise might not have had or they take on languages they otherwise might not have studied. (And, although having benefited from it, they sometimes forget all about Esperanto, to the despair of his fellow Esperantists.)

An experiment that is costly to do but keeps having the same result finds that when high school students spend a year studying Esperanto followed by three years of, say, French, they end up with stronger French that do those who spend the whole time on French.

It is not clear just why this happens. I would guess that not only does studying Esperanto highlight and clarify a lot of ideas about grammar and vocabulary and get the students used to the idea of using a language other than English —these are usually the experimenters’ conclusions— but it also probably gives the student an idea of what it is like to be able to use another language and the confidence to do it.

In principle, in that case, any language of which one is not a native speaker could have the same effect if a high enough level of mastery is achieved. Esperanto’s advantage would be that mastery comes faster than it does in most languages: fast enough to be useful. And satisfying. (Also in principle, this may make Esperanto an ideal subject for home schooling.)

Convincing students that both that they can master another language and that they want to do so seems to be half the battle in language teaching, and for students who have already studied and mastered another language, that battle comes already won.

Or anyway that seems to be the result with those who take up Esperanto. Since no school system in the United States is methodically exploring these propaedeutic effects with ordinary students, it is a little hard to say how much this kind of result is confined to students of greater than average intelligence. But it seems hard to deny that the pattern I have described is quite usual, at least with gifted students. And it is terrific that the effect happens even if the student later forgets Esperanto altogether.

An Occasionally Useful Tool

Of course student who does not forget Esperanto —my own experience is that Esperanto is hard forget if one learns it reasonably well— has permanent command of a medium that does have hundreds of thousands —perhaps even a million— speakers (at varying levels of fluency, since nearly all come to it as adult learners) and quite a bit of literature. Thus Esperanto can sometimes come in surprisingly handy for anyone traveling outside the English-speaking world. But all that is another story.

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