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Usona Esperantisto

Dumonata bulteno de Esperanto-USA

Alternatives to traditional language classes

D. Gary Grady

Language teaching in the traditional sense has for the most part meant classroom instruction, either as part of a broader curriculum or as a stand-alone course. In recent decades, especially in the U.S., this approach has been in decline for a variety of reasons, including school budget problems and shifts in priorities.

One interesting exception has been an increase in the teaching of Chinese, and not just because of China’s growing global importance. The Chinese government underwrites the pay of some Chinese language teachers in the U.S. and other countries, so that school systems unable to afford to teach other languages can offer Chinese at far lower cost1.

Unfortunately, Esperanto is one of the languages experiencing a decline in classroom teaching, as reflected in reports collected by the American Association of Teachers of Esperanto. (If you teach an Esperanto course, please let us know. You’ll find a form on our website and in every issue of the AATE newsletter.)

This decline doesn’t necessarily mean fewer people are learning Esperanto, however. Recent years have seen an explosion in Esperanto classes online, most notably via Lernu.net. As a consequence of the decline in formal teaching and the rise in online courses, the fraction of self-taught Esperanto speakers, always large in comparison with students of other languages, is now probably higher than ever. Of course, the online courses are not always entirely self-taught. There are often ways of getting help from a live volunteer tutor.

So is classroom teaching even relevant today? Certainly! For all the difficulty in organizing and offering a conventional class, it remains one of the most efficient ways to teach a language to a substantial number of people, as Andreo Cseh in particular demonstrated decades ago.

But at the same time, it’s clear we need to recognize how people today actually learn Esperanto and we need to think about what we can do to make it better. That’s an open-ended subject, so I’ll limit myself to just a few suggestions, a few of which I’ve touched on before. First, the best known and most successful classroom courses are those offered as part of the North American Summer Esperanto Institute (NASK), currently at the University of California at San Diego. These are intensive three-week classes taught at several levels. For those who can afford the time and the cost (note that financial aid is available), NASK is possibly the best way to advance one’s knowledge of Esperanto in the shortest amount of time. Similar programs of varying lengths are offered in other countries and are also worth investigating.

For those of us with less free time or travel funds, weekend courses are sometimes offered by regional Esperanto organizations, and kongresoj and local meetings can serve as de facto immersion courses. It’s amazing how much fluency improves during a week at an Universala Kongreso.

One way to make local meetings more effective is to dedicate a little time in each gathering explicitly to language learning. One possibility is for everyone to work through a course or textbook, such as William Auld’s Paŝoj al Plena Posedo or Boris Kolker’s Vojaĝo en Esperanto-lando (part of the latter can be found on Lernu.net). This is one of the things the Raleigh-Durham group did when it first started. It’s probably best not to devote the whole meeting to study, since that gets to be a bit too much like homework, but a little of it can help relative beginners catch up to the more experienced speakers, and it tends to help everybody improve their abilities rather than just maintain them.

A related idea is for everyone to read a short article or listen to a podcast in Esperanto (either during the meeting or in advance) and then talk about the subject matter, the vocabulary, and the grammar used. Among other things, this helps reduce the risk of developing a local dialect of Esperanto rather than learning the international norm.

Yet another possibility is to translate a short paragraph or so of colloquial English into Esperanto, since that can spark some interesting discussions and yield creative solutions that offer insights into how to employ Esperanto’s remarkable expressive capabilities. In La Bona Lingvo the late Claude Piron mentioned how much he learned translating prose into simple, beginner-level Esperanto, and if Claude Piron could benefit from that exercise, surely the rest of us can do so.

Incidentally, a language teaching method popular in a number of European countries is to have students spend part of each class teaching each other, and that’s basically what happens when a local group devotes some meeting time to deliberate teaching.

Technology has done a lot to help isolated Esperanto speakers practice the language, for example by exchanging email internationally. There are mailing lists and discussion forums devoted specifically to learning, and these can amount to an Internet analog of a local group. You can find discussions online at Lernu.net and of course at esperanto-usa.org, and you can search in both groups.yahoo.com and groups.google.com for mailing lists devoted to “learning Esperanto” or “Esperanto-lernado” and the like. You’ll be surprised by the number of possibilities out there. Often you can read recent messages before joining the group to see how active it is and at what level it operates.

The energetic Chuck Mays, another officer of AATE, is currently investigating the practicality of using free and inexpensive online video conferencing services for purposes of virtual meetings and classes. All it takes is an inexpensive webcam (now built into many laptop computers) and a reasonably fast Internet connection.

Here in east-central North Carolina we’ve enjoyed meetings in which one of the participants is actually more than a thousand miles away but still present on the screen of a laptop, able to join in the conversation almost as if he were actually here.

There are also virtual worlds such as SecondLife.com that allow people to attend meetings as if together in an imaginary location, or a sort of cartoon version of a real one.

With the spread of broadband Internet, it may soon become the most common medium for Esperanto classes of the future (and not just Esperanto, for that matter). I’ll have more to report on these experiments in a later column. In the meantime, try it yourselves and share what you learn.

  1.  http://nytimes.com/2010/01/21/education/21chinese.html