Do you speak Esperanto? This man is part of the community excelling in this international language


A way with words has coloured the career of this Wellington polyglot.

Words: Chris van Ryn  Photo: Carolyn robertson

The fact that “e” comes before “f” proved seminal for 14-year-old David Ryan.

“I remember this quite vividly,” he says. “It was 1981. I went to the Christchurch library looking for a French language book. As I ran my finger along the spines looking for ‘f’, I came across ‘e’, and the word ‘Esperanto’ sprang out. It changed my life.”

David began studying Esperanto. With its simplified grammar, it was surprisingly accessible, and he excelled. Four months later, he acquired Esperanto penfriends in Spain and France, and in January 1982, he attended his first five-day Esperanto congress in Christchurch. For the first few days, David sat in the audience uncomprehending.“Then suddenly, everything just clicked. I thought, ‘Wow… I understand this!’”

Why David became interested in languages remains a mystery. “Neither of my parents gave much thought to languages. I can’t sing or play an instrument, and I wouldn’t know where to start in servicing my car. But languages are my thing.”

Language became a portal for discovering the world. “After I finished my studies, I wrote to the Esperanto office in Rotterdam and asked if I could do volunteer work for them.”

They agreed. David was given a small stipend and accommodation at the Esperanto headquarters. It was learning by immersion, and it was tough. “We were speaking Esperanto all day, every day. I went to bed exhausted.”

But exhaustion didn’t stop him from learning Dutch while refining his Esperanto. It was the start of a journey towards becoming a polyglot. In addition to English, Esperanto and Dutch, he speaks French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Afrikaans and a little German and Japanese.

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Living in Wellington, David and his Mexican wife Celina and twin daughters speak fluent Spanish.

“It’s our home language. We’ve always communicated in Spanish. When I met Celina, I spoke Spanish, and she spoke about two words in English. So, we’re a very bicultural family.”

Now semi-retired, David worked for many years in the financial analysis sector. “Languages open up the world. They cross barriers. When I worked in government, if they were looking at a policy, they would look at what they do in other countries – but mostly English-speaking countries, because of the language barrier. Languages enabled me to see how others in the world operate,” says David.

In 1887, Polish ophthalmologist Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, who lived in the multilingual district of Warsaw, developed a passion for a world without war. He reasoned that a politically neutral language spoken in all countries might encourage tolerance, serenity and wellbeing.

The word “Esperanto” means “one who hopes”. It comes from the French “espérer” and from the Latin “spērāre”, which means “to hope”. Zamenhof constructed Esperanto by combining French, English, Spanish, German, Greek, Latin and Russian.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that Esperanto was a language used by Jews to pursue world domination, and it was largely stamped out during World War II.

But over the past few decades, Esperanto has seen a quiet revival. “The ideal would be that everyone learns their primary language and, at the same time, Esperanto as a second language,” says David.

There’s an odd paradox here. David recognises that the exclusivity of Esperanto enables Esperantists to form a quick bond – no matter where they are.

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“We were once travelling in Slovakia, and I contacted the local Esperantists. They met us at the train station and took us around the city. When you connect with Esperantists, it’s definitely a closer, more intimate relationship.”

Despite spending the past 30 years immersed in different languages, none of that early enthusiasm for Esperanto has diminished for David. And he is still in touch with his Esperanto penpal in Spain.

Today there are an estimated two million Esperantists, united by a common language – 1000 people speak it as their first language. History shows that language alone is insufficient to create world peace. But with a name that means “hopeful”, the language still engenders hope among Esperantists.

“When speaking Esperanto, you feel like you are doing your bit to further international relations,” says David.

LET’S LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE 

The New Zealand Esperanto Association can put people in touch with Esperantists in other cities. Groups meet regularly in Wellington and Christchurch. Esperanto can be learnt online, and a few groups throughout the country offer the opportunity for learners to practise.

Contact the association to find out if there are Esperantists or a regular group nearby.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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