Esperanto Language Staying Alive In Arizona And Beyond

By Stina Sieg
Published: Friday, June 5, 2015 - 9:35am
Updated: Friday, June 5, 2015 - 5:22pm
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(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Greg Kay, left, raised his son Linken to speak the invented language Esperanto - as his first language. Linken is one of an estimated 1,000 native Esperanto speakers worldwide.

The Esperanto language was invented more than 100 years ago with the hope of creating world peace through a tongue everyone would learn. That hasn’t happened, but Esperanto still holds mystique for many.

Esperanto ne estas morta (Esperanto is not dead).

The well-known language-learning platform Duolingo is even about to issue an Esperanto app. And here in Arizona, just like so many places in the world, there are few die-hard Esperantists.

On a recent afternoon, 10-year-old Linken Kay was throwing a ball for his dog around his backyard pool in Tucson.

Linken is a rarity — even within the Esperanto community. It’s estimated that anywhere between 200,000 and 2 million people speak the language worldwide. But there are only about 1,000 native speakers, like Linken. Esperanto was his first language, and still the main one he uses with his dad, Greg Kay.

“Having lived abroad, I realize that the language barrier is a significant barrier and can create many misunderstandings," Greg said.

Greg used the language while traveling when he was younger. In fact, the free hospitality network he used then still exists. It’s called Pasporta Servo, and it lists Esperanto speakers willing to open their homes to fellow Esperantists.

“Thanks to Esperanto, I’ve met many people that I would have just passed by otherwise, many fascinating people," Greg said.

Humphrey Tonkin isn’t one of them, but the professor of humanities at the University of Hartford in Connecticut had a similar experience. Growing up in England, he taught himself Esperanto at 14, and then used it to travel across Eastern Europe and beyond. He said Esperanto creates a kind of “level playing field,” because it’s a second language for almost everyone who speaks it.

“The result is that you’re kind of lifted out of your own cultural limitations,” Tonkin said. “And you’re really in an authentically international environment.”  

Maybe that is what has kept Esperanto alive, even though the rise of English could have killed it off. Tonkin said it also could have faded away during both world wars, when its speakers were persecuted. Instead, he thinks the language is actually growing, though he knows it’s incredibly hard to gauge.

At this point, learning Esperanto is kind of — “dare I use the word, a kind of Utopian thing?” he said.

Especially since the world is full of problems, he added, many of them getting worse.

“But that’s all the more reason for hanging on to those things that will make the world a better place. We just need to get together better,” Tonkin said. “And maybe Esperanto is one of the ways we can do it.”

Back in Tucson, Greg and Linken Kay were using Esperanto, but not to talk about world peace. They were chatting about the baby birds living in a nest outside their house. Greg joked that when Esperanto is made the official language of the United Nations, raising his son this way will be validated.

More seriously, though, he said he has no regrets about giving Linken the gift of this language.

“Again, a language that perhaps is not going to going to give you any sort of reward in the future,” Greg said. “It’s a different kind of reward, and often times, a much richer reward.”

And one that Linken might share with his kids someday.