by Ralph Dumain

As part of the 25th Annual Congress of the Esperanto League for North America held this year at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, an academic forum was held featuring Dr. Roger Shuy of the Department of Linguistics of Georgetown University and the Center for Applied Linguistics. The topic discussed was “Sociolinguistics and the study of Esperanto.”

Dr. Shuy, as an open‑minded newcomer to Esperanto, first addressed himself to the frequent charges that linguists have expressed little concern for Esperanto. He proposed that linguists, including sociolinguists, have their own specialized interests and research priorities, and furthermore their own political and social objectives, which may take priority to interest in Esperanto. Also, sociolinguistics is a new and undermanned field.

Next, Dr. Shuy outlined basic concepts and concerns of sociolinguistics. Sociolinguistics is concerned with variation in language and the social factors that influence it. Language is far from being a simple right‑wrong affair. Language in actual usage is spread along a continuum of usage and acceptability in phonology (sound system), grammar, and choice of vocabulary. People make conscious and unconscious choices in adjusting their speech to the demands of different social contexts. Sociolinguists are also concerned with the functions of language, attitudes toward language varieties and their speakers, and the application of sociolinguistic knowledge to educational and political decision-making.

Dr. Shuy then made suggestions as to how sociolinguistic concepts could be applied to the study of Esperanto. Among the aspects of Esperanto to be investigated mentioned are the nature of the variation which exists in the production of phonological and grammatical forms, the semantic continuum, the variation in functions or uses of Esperanto, the tolerable limits of variation, and what constitutes stigmatized Esperanto.

The most promising involvement of sociolinguists with Esperanto is in the area of language teaching, according to Dr. Shuy. However, Esperantists must clarify the linguistic claims of Esperanto, particularly in regard to linguistic simplicity and ease of learning. There is no convincing proof that Esperanto is simpler or more easily learned than other languages. Linguistic simplicity is most difficult to define or determine. Application of mistaken notions of ease, simplicity, and clarity has resulted in poor teaching materials. Esperantists should avoid making claims or arguments based on purported inherent linguistic qualities of Esperanto.

A better claim for Esperanto might be based on social simplicity. The advantage here is that Esperanto is purely an instrumental language, not an integrative one (i.e., carrying the motivation to assimilate into another culture). Esperanto is not learned in a socio‑political or emotional context. Dr. Shuy described the situation of the educationally disadvantaged children of guest‑laborers in Europe. He speculated that Esperanto could be offered to these children by school systems that do not wish to offer costly bilingual education programs in several languages and for ethnic groups who do not intend to assimilate to the host country. Esperanto could be politically and economically expedient, with an added efficiency factor if Esperanto is indeed easier to learn than other languages. Dr. Shuy cautioned that he was not advocating his idea as an educational policy but only as a worthwhile experiment to make.

Another possible experimental application is the use of Esperanto in teaching concepts of literacy. The potential usefulness of Esperanto as a medium of initial literacy is totally unknown but Esperanto may be particularly useful for this purpose in third world countries where there exist predominant oral, non‑written languages.

Dr. Shuy concluded that to convince linguists of all the claims of Esperanto would be difficult, but linguists can be convinced by good evidence.

The first discussant, Dr. William Solzbacher, member of the Esperanto Academy, concentrated on the issue of the borders of intelligibility in Esperanto. He reported on the little research that has been done in that area. Also, he emphasized the support that Esperanto has received by linguists.

The second discussant, Jody Crandall, doctoral candidate in linguistics at Georgetown University, spoke on quite a few aspects of Esperanto. A newcomer to the language, she was impressed by the goal of a non‑imperialistic language but felt that the claims of Esperanto needed substantiation. Ms Crandall raised serious questions concerning Esperanto. People learn English for economic, educational, and social reasons, regardless of their feelings about it. Can Esperanto provide similar motivations? It is dubious that governments could impose the study of Esperanto. How can Esperanto preserve itself as a standard language and avoid becoming dialectalized, especially if it gains acceptance? Academies have little influence. Ms Crandall claimed that the evidence indicates that native language literacy is essential and that using Esperanto to teach literacy would be unfortunate. She nevertheless thought that Esperanto has great educational value.

The third discussant, Ralph Dumain, a student in the linguistics department at the State University of New York at Buffalo, expressed a desire to respond to the points made by Ms Crandall but confined himself to his prepared remarks on Dr. Shuy's lecture. Mr. Dumain acknowledged valuable ideas presented by Dr. Shuy, expressed appreciation for Dr. Shuy's serious consideration of Esperanto from a sociolinguistic perspective, and attempted to clear up some matters on Esperanto. He claimed that regularity, not simplicity, is a property of Esperanto and regularity contributes to ease of learning. He also briefly described other linguistic and a few sociolinguistic and political aspects of Esperanto.

The moderator of the forum, Dr. E. James Lieberman, added his comments. He disputed Mr. Dumain's claim that Esperanto-speakers are not stigmatized for using the language improperly. Dr. Lieberman stated that as an Esperantist he has experienced stigmatization for speaking Esperanto incorrectly and that Esperantists do not like to hear their language butchered. He also claimed that the ability to perceive speech plays an important part in language learning in addition to motivation. According to Dr. Lieberman, linguistic change in Esperanto will be retarded by the standardizing effect of modern communications media.

Dr. Shuy in his final remarks made several points, some of which are mentioned below. He emphasized that he approaches sociolinguistics with a linguistic emphasis. Others have a sociological emphasis. it is good to hear that Esperanto has variability; no language can exist without it. Language change is not to be feared. To remedy the lack of communication between linguists and Esperantists, arguments which will interest linguists should be used; for example, consistency or regularity is a good notion. The study of the acquisition of Esperanto, particularly by children, would thrill linguists and would attract researchers without fail. The electronic media have little standardizing effect on language usage. Real people are models for usage, not TV. A list of myths about Esperanto would be useful to linguists.

Finally, Dr. Shuy expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to extend his hand as Mr. Dumain had expressed. It is time for rapprochement between academics and Esperantists, he said. Many linguists are interested in Esperanto and are waiting for evidence presented from a linguistic perspective.

Indeed, rapprochement turned out to be the theme of the evening's forum. Dr. Shuy, with limited background knowledge of Esperanto, seriously attempted to investigate possibilities for sociolinguistic study of the language and also to indicate what kind of researches have the greatest potential. The panel discussion was a great stimulus to the participants themselves, whose interest in Esperanto research was excited by the exchange of information. It was also a good experience for the audience, which included Esperantists and non‑Esperantists, who as a result of this forum gained a more sophisticated understanding of language. Several members of the audience approached the panelists after the conclusion of the discussion to express their appreciation of the event. Evidently, it was a success.

SOURCE: Dumain, Ralph. “Sociolinguist Extends a Hand: Academic Forum on Esperanto at Georgetown University,” ELNA Newsletter, #4-5, July-Oct. 1977, pp. 2-3.

©1977, 2004 Ralph Dumain

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