"Learning Esperanto for a Lifetime" by Steven Brewer
I probably first heard of Esperanto when I read a Harry Harrison book in junior high school. I read the Deathworld Trilogy in which Esperanto has become a common inter-planetary language and the main character is always running into dopes who haven't learned Esperanto -- and who always suffer as a result. He's always stunned when the people haven't learned Esperanto: "Why not! It's easy!"
As a high school student, I studied Spanish. I majored in Spanish (and Biology) as an undergraduate and spent several months studying in Madrid during my senior year in college. At that time, I was fairly fluent: I could understand native speakers and make myself understood fairly well. I would get mocked or laughed at from time to time when I said something that seemed like it "ought" to be correct, but actually meant something entirely different.
Esperanto reached my consciousness again in 1987 -- during the 100th anniversary of Esperanto it made it onto CNN. My brother and I talked about learning Esperanto and he even ordered textbooks for us to use. But we were both busy -- at the time I was working long hours and had a long commute.
The following autumn, I was working for a different company and was traveling through Southern California for months at a time. I was in a used bookstore and found a nice copy of "Wini-la-Pu", which I purchased instantly as a present for my brother. In the hotel that night, I perused the book, which included a nice introduction to the language at the beginning. Since I was on the road, and had ample free time every night -- and not much to do while staying in hotels -- I went back to the bookstores and looked for a use Esperanto textbook. I found a 1906 book An Esperanto Grammar and Commentary by General George Cox. It was perfect.
I studied Esperanto every night. I began a journal in Esperanto. I would stop at libraries everywhere to look for more books to read. I even requested The Aggressor Language from the UCLA stacks and spent an couple hours in a little room reading it one afternoon. Eventually, while in the Bay area, I stopped by the Centra Oficejo of ELNA to buy a copy of La Danĝera Lingvo.
By June, I could read Esperanto pretty well but didn't have much practice speaking. I had moved back to Kalamazoo to attend graduate school and, upon arriving, I was pleased to find that there was a local Esperanto group. I called their phone number and left a message. I got a call back that evening from the leader, Ĝan Starling, who invited me to the upcoming Mezlanda Konferenco de Esperanto which was going to be in Milwaukee that weekend. He said someone else from the group had already paid, but would be unable to attend, so I could ride for free with him. He picked me up Friday morning and we rode together. In the car, we spoke only Esperanto. I was astonished to discover that I could understand spoken Esperanto perfectly well. At the conference, I gained confidence and by the end of the conference discovered I was speaking Esperanto more fluently after just a few months than I had ever spoken Spanish, in spite of having studied Spanish for years and years.
Since becoming hooked, I've continued to use Esperanto almost every day. At various times, I've had penpals; attended meetings and conferences; stayed with people through Pasporta Servo; been an invited speaker; written articles, stories, and poetry; organized congresses; been a tourguide for travellers... And much, much more. Esperanto has given my life an added dimension and provided a richness that I don't think I could have found any other way: Driving through the Hungarian countryside and discovering that I had been thinking in Esperanto for hours without realizing it... Being met on the airplane in Brazil with an announcement in Esperanto over the loudspeaker... Attending seminars with people from more than 20 different countries all speaking Esperanto fluently...
When I had small children, I had relatively little time for Esperanto. My brother and I would write and exchange haiku in Esperanto. At first, it was just a game, but I came to appreciate the juxtaposition of Esperanto's flexibility with the rules and structure of haiku. We still exchange haiku frequently and this year, for Christmas, my brother gave me a page-a-day calendar with the haiku we've written over the years.
Now that my kids are older, I've been trying to give back to the community. I'm currently serving on the leadership of local, regional, national, and international Esperanto organizations. Esperanto has made my world a more interesting place and I look for ways to share that sense of wonder and excitement with the larger community. I also have been trying to raise the profile of our organizations: to externalize their activity both by increasing the ways that non-esperanto speakers might discover Esperanto and to help them discover the activity within the organization itself.
All this isn't to say that everything has always been perfect. I speak Esperanto pretty darned fluently, although I still make a fair number of stupid grammatical errors. I haven't seriously "studied" Esperanto in 15 years -- and I don't intend to. Some people seem to think that any conversation with me is an opportunity for them to improve my grammar. It's true, however, that I can't communicate as clearly in Esperanto as I can in English, which sometimes results in misunderstandings. I have mostly learned to be careful in interpreting what someone said in Esperanto, especially if it seems rude or inappropriate. When people learn Esperanto, I think they go through a phase where it seems like magic and many people come to believe (at least for a while) that they can communicate more clearly than they really can. Most experienced Esperanto-speakers have developed a kind of careful verbal dance to negotiate understanding -- especially of anything delicate -- because they've had problems at one time or another.
So, if you've ever dreamed about really being able to speak a foreign language, I would argue that Esperanto is a good choice. It is easier to learn than other languages (in my experience) and provides access to a rich community of people. You can use Esperanto in many many countries around the world. Its true that you can't just show up on a street corner and find people who speak it, but how often do you walk down a street accosting people? If you make arrangements ahead of time, you can probably get more help than if you just learned the native language anyway. In retrospect, I feel that learning Esperanto was a good choice and I would recommend it to anyone.