In centuries past it was common for language courses to emphasize grammar. In fact, language textbooks themselves were often called “grammars,” and in British and American schools there was so much emphasis in the early grades on learning grammar that we still sometimes refer to elementary schools as “grammar schools.” Vocabulary was taught less systematically. To a fair extent it was something students picked up by translating passages into and out of the language in question with the aid of a dictionary. This approach made a fair amount of sense for classical languages but was not well suited to producing conversational fluency.
People learning a language on their own, on the other hand, tend to start with vocabulary and some useful stock phrases and acquire grammar later. It’s remarkable how well one can communicate with a handful of words, a minimal set of phrases, and acting things out. Many years ago I bought some lens cleaner in a Paris camera store by miming cleaning my lens and saying, “J’ai besoin de queque chose pour …,” and I once bought typing paper in a Reykjavik stationery shop by making typing motions with my fingers and speaking one of the few words of Icelandic I happened to know, blað (paper). Even dogs and cats manage to communicate with their humans by pushing an empty food dish around the floor or standing by the door and looking plaintive.
More recently, possibly starting with the appearance of direct-method courses in the early 20th century, formal language teaching has gradually placed more emphasis on the practical needs of everyday communication, including learning a useful vocabulary. There’s also more emphasis on the culture(s) associated with a language. A student studying Spanish, for example, is likely to learn something of the history and culture of Spain and Latin America along with some basic etiquette and even a knowledge of cuisine.
Esperanto textbooks and course materials show a parallel development. The Zagreb method, for instance, based its vocabulary in part on a study of word frequencies in Esperanto texts. Other word lists of use to teachers have been produced by the magazine Kontakto and by the Academy of Esperanto.
As previously mentioned here, Kontakto’s list is very well thought out. It’s available in various forms on the Internet.
A more extensive core vocabulary, the Baza Radikaro Oficiala, was released in 1974 by the Academy of Esperanto. You can find it online as well. Here’s the Academy’s page about the BRO.
You might prefer this version with English translations from British Esperantist Edmund Grimley Evans. The page includes as a bonus some additional roots added by the website’s owner.
You can also find it by searching the web for “Baza Radikaro Oficiala” and “Edmund Grimley Evans”.
The BRO includes 2500 roots, divided into nine groups in declining order of frequency. The first four groups, comprising 546 roots, would make a good starting vocabulary for a new Esperanto speaker. You can find computer flash cards based on the BRO online, though I haven’t tried them myself.
As for Esperanto’s cultural aspects, this is something many courses still overlook. But someone making use of Esperanto needs to be familiar with the meaning of krokodili, UEA, LK, Universala Kongreso, AIS, Akademio, La Espero, Zamenhof, William Auld, X-metodo, and many other things that aren’t what one would normally think of as being part of the language itself. Many modern courses, such as the Ana Pana series at Lernu!, do try to introduce learners to such things as the Pasporta Servo and attending a Universala Kongreso or Internacia Junulara Kongreso. Ian Fantom’s 10-lesson correspondence course Esperanto Viva! offers the most thorough orientation to Esperanto culture I’ve seen in a beginning course, covering besides basic grammar and vocabulary such topics as Esperanto organizations and magazines, history, music, and so on. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be an interactive online version available, and I’m not sure how viva the course might be at the moment. You can find it at Esperanto Viva!
But I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself: Just what kind of Esperanto course are we talking about? One for elementary school students is likely to be different in content from one aimed at college students, and unless you’re a professional teacher you might not have a chance to teach either in a traditional classroom setting.
In fact, a very high proportion of new Esperanto speakers today learn not from a textbook or formal course but rather on the Internet, most often at Lernu!. One might even ask whether there is any need for formal classroom courses now. Might we just to point people to Lernu! and let them progress past the beginning phase by reading and using the language at meetings and kongresoj and via email and the web — which is now probably what happens most of the time in any case? I wouldn’t go that far, since while this clearly can and does work for many people, it isn’t ideal. It’s still common to hit a learning plateau and get stuck at the level of eterna komencanto or eterna progresinto.
Of course, anyone teaching a course today ought to take full advantage of on-line resources to augment classroom instruction. For one thing, outside of NASK or a school setting, it’s rare for a course to meet more than once or twice a week, which is less than ideal. It’s best if students learn a little every day, and Lernu! and the like give us a way to achieve that.
Finally, you might not have time to teach a traditional course, and if you do, especially outside a school setting, you may well have trouble finding a lot of students to commit to a formal class lasting weeks. A good practical alternative is a one- or two-day course — or sometimes even a one- or two-hour course! — on one specific aspect of the language, such as an overview of Esperanto literature or an intensive class in conversational skills or what to do at a Universala Kongreso. Another idea is to teach some other subject in Esperanto, ideally something that involves active student discussion.
Very short courses have many advantages, not least requiring less time commitment for all concerned.
Join the American Association of Teachers of Esperanto and you automatically get membership in the Internacia Ligo de Esperantistaj Instruistoj and subscriptions to both the AATE Bulletin and the excellent Internacia Pedagogia Revuo. See the AAIE website.