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Over the past two or three days, there has been an interesting discussion at the One Laptop per Child News website. This is a site that is run by two observers of the OLPC project. For those who don't know, OLPC is a project by Nicholas Negroponte to put computers into the hands of children in the developing world. Originally tagged at $100/laptop, the project is moving forward (although currently slated at something like $208/laptop) and is supposed to actually reach children sometime next year.

The OLPC project itself has been an interesting project to me for several reasons: one is that I've had the idea of using technology to do international projects with students and Esperanto. In the developers' project wiki about the OLPC project, a number of people had proposed Esperanto as something the developers might want to consider. (Including me).

I think the folks at OLPC News saw the Esperanto community as an easy target on a slow news day: Esperanto on the Children's Machine. The author included a reasonable description of Esperanto, but used pejorative terms like "crazies" to describe the Esperanto community. This elicited a strong, though relatively restrained, response from the Esperanto Community.

The authors of the site claimed that the responses simply validated their original contention:

I love how all these comments prove my earlier statement: Esperanto "is the cause célèbre of the obscure intellectual set, brought out every few years as a solution to tribalism, warfare, world strife, plagues, droughts, and planetary misalignment."

For all the love I have for geeking out - and Esperanto is language nerds getting their geek on - back in this amazing place I like to call "reality" Esperanto is but a footnote in language.

I did a bit of research about the primary author that had stirred up the controversy and sent him a piece of email:

Dear Wayan,

I was curious, when you didn't answer my question about how many languages you'd learned to fluency, so I surfed around a bit and I see you've learned several languages to some extent, and Russian to fluency. So you have some sense for how difficult it is to always be at a disadvantage when you have to operate in a second language -- for me, it was that experience that was ultimately most persuasive to me regarding the need for Esperanto. Robert Phillipson has written about this a good bit (here's just one book):

He argues that a system that lets some of us (the richest ones) operate in our native language and makes everyone else (the poorer ones) use a second language, will systematically disadvantage them and contribute to their subjugation.

Francois Grin has recently received a lot of attention for an economics study he did in Europe which calculated how much less expensive it would be if Europe adopted Esperanto (as one of several options): He concluded that more than 17 billion euros could be saved annually (in terms of wasted effort in language learning, translation, etc) if Esperanto were adopted. (Sorry -- there's no english translation, to my knowledge).

These people are not "crazies". Nor are they part of some "obscure intellectual set". I deplore your use of these pejorative terms.

I also wanted to invite you to participate in Esperanto Day. I'm trying to organize a one-day blogfest for people to post bilingually in their native language and in Esperanto about language problems from their home, region, or country:

We have people that could help you translate your posting and would welcome your participation, regardless of what you might choose to say.

I was rather surprised when it turned up in the discussion with one change: he had changed the salutation (where I had used his last name plus honorific) to his first name.

What neither of them was willing to address is the fact that painting a whole community with a broad brush based on personal stereotypes is just a mistake. This is the same kind of mistaken thinking that underlies racism. One of the authors posted that its OK to practice this kind of thinking because esperantists don't represent a race, without recognizing that it is a general problem whether one talks about race or gender or religion -- or language.

In my first comment in the thread, I pointed out that there's probably more support worldwide for Esperanto than there is for OLPC anyway. Atanu Dey an economist who studies India, wrote a series of a good posts, OLPC RIP: part one, OLPC RIP: part two, and OLPC RIP: part three describing the economic realities in India and arguing that the opportunity cost for purchasing laptops is too high: the money that could be spent the OLPC would serve children much better by hiring teachers and making sure that villages have a functioning school (with things like blackboards and toilets). But what's funniest (or maybe saddest) are the comments by enthusiastic OLPC supporters, like this one and this one. And they say that the Esperantists are the crazies. :-)