Years ago, Father Guido Sarducci (a fictional character played by comedian Don Novello) said he wanted to start a “Five Minute University.” It would be based on the idea that everything the average college graduate remembers five years after graduation can be learned in about five minutes (allowing 20 seconds for spring break).
“You know, like, in college, you have to take a foreign language. Well, at the Five-Minute University, you can have your choice: any language you want, you can take it. Say if you want to take Spanish, what I teach you is ‘¿Como está usted?’ — that means ‘How are you?’ — and the answer is ‘Muy bien’ — means ‘Very well.’ And believe me, if you took two years of college Spanish, five years after you out of school, ‘¿Como está usted?’ and ‘Muy bien’ is ‘bout all you gonna remember.”
(You can see the entire bit on YouTube.)
Of course, Father Guido was exaggerating a bit, but what he said is basically true: people do tend to lose their ability to communicate in a language they don’t use actively, even if that language is one they grew up speaking. Those still studying a language can also hit a roadblock. I don’t know what percentage of foreign language students never get beyond the beginning level, but for native speakers of English the figure is surely quite large.
What distinguishes an eterna komencanto in Esperanto is a sustained interest in the language despite knowing only the basics. Interestingly, it’s rare to hear the term used as an insult. That’s partly because tolerance is central to the Interna Ideo, and partly because we need all the friends we can get. In fact, quite a few eternaj komencantoj have contributed a good deal to promoting Esperanto. And a fair number have eventually — perhaps after a change in circumstances made more free time available — gone on to become very fluent speakers.
Incidentally, the terms komencanto and progresinto are interesting for their grammatical difference. The former implies that one is still beginning; the latter that one has progressed past that stage. Presumably we’d all want to be eternaj progresantoj as well as progresintoj, always learning and improving, but we all eventually (often more than once) reach a point where our progress slows to a stop, or near to it. This a problem only if it occurs too soon, before we’ve reached our desired level of fluency.
How do you help your students break past that point, or move beyond it yourself?
First, making progress requires a commitment of time and work — less with Esperanto than with other languages, but still a fair amount of it. Ideally we should devote a few hours every day, but rarely is that practical for more than a few weeks at a time, in the context of an intensive course like NASK. The alternative is to spend some time on Esperanto every day, or at least several days a week, preferably in a variety of ways.
For many of us, reading is the easiest way to learn since we can do it at our own pace. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve found it helpful to mark unfamiliar words and then go back and look them up in a batch, writing down the words and their English equivalents — either in a notebook, a text file on a computer, a smart phone, or the like. The act of simply writing something down tends to make it easier to remember, and the resulting self-made dictionary gives you a simple way to review. It doesn’t much matter what you read as long as it’s in good Esperanto and it’s something you find interesting.
Second, even for Esperanto speakers well past the beginner stage, it can help to work our way through a textbook from time to time to refresh our knowledge of the grammar. One good choice is Montagu C. Butler’s Step by Step in Esperanto, available for $13 (less if you’re a member) from the Esperanto-USA libroservo. The lessons are very brief, often taking only a minute or two to read. Step by Step also works well as a grammar reference.
For something more like a a conventional textbook, Boris Kolker’s Vojaĝo en Esperanto-lando ($30.60) is probably the most widely used advanced textbook today. Another good text is William Auld’s classic Paŝoj al Plena Posedo. David K. Jordan’s Being Colloquial in Esperanto ($15 in print, or free online) is organized like a reference book but can also be read cover to cover, and as a bonus it’s highly entertaining. Both Step by Step and Being Colloquial are in English, so they’re good choices for people who have reached the progresinto level but still aren’t completely comfortable reading Esperanto.
To get practice writing as well as reading, join a mailing list or other on-line discussion forum, such as those at Lernu. Invite people to point out your mistakes — and take it cheerfully when they do!
Besides reading, you’ll probably want to do some listening, and today the Internet makes available everything from podcasts, songs, and YouTube videos to traditional radio programs something like those on NPR or the BBC, but in Esperanto. A good starting place is the online 24-hour Esperanto radio station Muzaiko. For many more choices, simply search for “Esperanto radio.”
To work on your pronunciation, consider getting a digital voice recorder (which you can find many places, including drugstores), or a voice recorder application on a smart phone.
For practicing live conversation there’s always your local group as well as regional, national, and international meetings, but today we also have Skype, Google+ hangouts, and the like to let you talk with Esperanto-speaking friends and acquaintances in the U.S. and elsewhere. Another option to consider is Livemocha, an online community where people help each other learn languages, including Esperanto. I haven’t tried it myself, but I’ve heard some positive reports.
If possible, also devote some time to serious, intensive study by immersion at a kongreso or even better the North American Summer Kursaro in the U.S. (specifically in Raleigh in 2013) or at one of the similar courses offered in Europe. It’s remarkable how fast one can progress in such an environment.
In any case, the key to moving from progresinto to progresanto is simply investing the effort and finding out what works for us as individuals.