Video games have been used as a means of helping people learn things pretty much since the early days of the medium; even the humble Atari 2600 played host to basic spelling and mathematics challenges.
As technology has advanced and creators have become more proficient at using interactive media to tell stories and express themselves, more and more ways to educate people have become readily accessible.
Best of all, people have realised once and for all that we don’t need a hard divide between “games” and “educational software”, so today we find ourselves with titles like SukeraSparo’s The Expression: Amrilato, a visual novel that provides its audience with both a romantic story of blossoming love between two girls, and the opportunity to learn some Esperanto.
Before we dive into the game properly in the subsequent parts of this feature, I wanted to take the opportunity to learn a bit more about Esperanto itself, since before encountering this game for the first time it was something I had only a passing familiarity with. To put it another way, I was intrigued as to whether or not this game would really provide some sort of valuable learning experience, or if it was simply going to be an interesting curiosity. So let’s find out more… together!
Esperanto is what is known as a constructed language. This means it is a language that has been deliberately thought up by people to fulfil a particular purpose rather than evolving naturally over time as a result of various environmental, societal, artistic and political influences. The English we speak today, for example, is the result of nearly 1,500 years of continual, gradual development, with its major eras typically being marked by a substantial cultural influence such the Norman invasion in 1066, the baffling historical anomaly known as The Great Vowel Shift, and the invention of the printing press.
Esperanto, meanwhile, was dreamed up in 1873 by a 14 year old Polish-Jewish schoolboy named Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof; Zamenhof subsequently developed, expanded and ultimately published his original ideas in a book in 1887. Who else feels a bit bad for spending their school days drawing dicks in the back pages of their friends’ exercise books now, huh?
Zamenhof was particularly fascinated by the idea of a world without war, but believed that this was an impossible dream without a common method of communication between the many and varied people of the world, many of whom had proven on numerous occasions to be quite fond of killing one another, often as a result of a breakdown in communication.
He conjectured that a neutral auxiliary language that could be universally adopted would allow communication and negotiation to take place on a fair and equitable basis. In other words, he wasn’t seeking to replace any individual culture’s language with his creation; he was arguing in favour of it being introduced as a universal second language that could be used in any situation where native communication was impossible.
The book in which Zamenhof published his initial proposals for the language was called Dr. Esperanto’s International Language, since Zamenhof wrote it under a pen name. It has since become more widely and colloquially known as Unua Libro (or First Book), however. Early speakers became rather fond of the name “Esperanto” in favour of the dry “international language” descriptor; it took less than two years for this nickname to stick and ultimately become the officially recognised name for the language.
It was an entirely appropriate name, as it happened, given Zamenhof’s grand ambitions for his language to be used as a means of promoting peace; “Esperanto” derives from the Latin term “sperare” (“to hope”) and is typically translated as “one who hopes”. Can’t get much more hopeful than believing the language you thought up during a particularly dull history lecture might one day save the world from war, huh?
“The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles,” Zamenhof wrote in an 1895 letter to Nikolai Borovko, an early proponent of the language in Russia. “In Białystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies.
“In such a town,” he continued, “a sensitive nature feels more acutely than elsewhere the misery caused by language division and sees at every step that the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies. I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all people were brothers, while outside in the street at every step I felt that there were no people, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews and so on.
“This was always a great torment to my infant mind,” he explained, “although many people may smile at such an ‘anguish for the world’ in a child. Since at that time I thought that ‘grown-ups’ were omnipotent, so I often said to myself that when I grew up I would certainly destroy this evil.”
With this in mind, Zamenhof designed Esperanto to have three main goals, making them explicit in Unua Libro. The first was for the study of the language to be easy enough to feel like “mere play” to the learner. The second was for the learner to be able to make direct use of their knowledge with people of any nationality. And the third was to “find some means of overcoming the natural indifference of mankind, and disposing them, in the quickest manner possible, and en masse, to learn and use the proposed language as a living one, and not only in last extremities, and with the key at hand.”
The grandiose language Zamenhof used for the third point represents probably his most significant ambition for Esperanto: that despite being a constructed language, it would “live” like a natural language; he hoped it would evolve and change over time to best fit its needs.
But, you might think, the whole point of the language in the first place was to be “universal”, so if it was allowed to evolve in the same way as natural languages — perhaps having different changes in different regions — wouldn’t it end up encountering the very same problems it was designed to solve?
Zamenhof was prepared for this possibility. In 1905, he published another book named Fundamento de Esperanto, designed to be a definitive guide to the language. In the same year, he organised the first of many World Esperanto Congress events, and as part of this assembly he proposed that an independent body of scholars specialising in linguistics should oversee the evolution of Esperanto.
This proposal ultimately culminated in the establishment of the Akademio de Esperanto, an organisation whose sole task was to ensure that the evolving language was kept consistent with Fundamento de Esperanto and the agreements that had been reached at this first Congress. This wasn’t an unprecedented idea; the French language is similarly overseen by the Académie française, while Spanish is stewarded by the Real Academia Española, an official royal institution tasked with ensuring the stability of Spanish around the world.
Esperanto continued to grow throughout the 20th century, despite resistance from both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. The language was officially recognised by the United Nations as an international auxiliary language in 1954, and numerous writers and creators have seemingly found the language fascinating over the years, be it Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 movie The Great Dictator representing signs in the Jewish ghetto using Esperanto; 1965 B-movie Incubus, which featured a pre-Star Trek William Shatner and dialogue entirely in Esperanto; or the British sci-fi comedy TV show Red Dwarf contemplating what a future where Esperanto really was adopted as a completely universal second language might look like.
Author George Orwell, meanwhile, had a bit of a beef with the language. Not only was he frustrated to discover his aunt speaking Esperanto rather than the French he was hoping to practice when he went to visit her in Paris, he believed that Zamenhof’s attempts to strictly control and direct the language was representative of totalitarianism. Consequently, the fictional language Newspeak found in Orwell’s seminal 1949 work Nineteen Eighty-Four is quite obviously based on Esperanto, particularly in terms of grammatical structure and word construction; the well-known “good, ungood, plusungood” constructions mirror Esperanto’s “bona, malbona, malbonega” exactly.
The stated intentions were somewhat different, though; Esperanto uses a smaller number of root words with modifying prefixes and suffixes to reduce the amount of vocabulary a prospective speaker would have to learn; Newspeak, meanwhile, aimed to limit independent thought and rebellious ideas.
The language has even appeared in video games, with probably the most touching example seen in Square Enix’s massively multiplayer online RPG Final Fantasy XI. When composing the recurring theme Memoro de la Ŝtono, Nobuo Uematsu elected to write the lyrics in Esperanto as a symbolic representation of the developers’ hope that players from all over the world would come together to enjoy the game. Indeed, unlike many other MMOs, Final Fantasy XI has always hosted Asian, European and American players on the same servers rather than stratifying by region, though the game allows players who do not share a common language to make use of an auto-translate dictionary to communicate rather than requiring them to use Esperanto!
Even with its lofty ambitions to be a universal second language for everyone, though, you still have to actually learn Esperanto to be able to communicate in it. And being thrown into a situation where your choices are “speak Esperanto or be pretty much entirely incapable of functioning in society” would probably be pretty terrifying and upsetting.
That’s exactly the situation that The Expression: Amrilato’s protagonist Rin finds herself in shortly after the outset of the story, so that’s where we’ll pick up from next time — and we’ll just see for ourselves how easy it is to learn this language; whether the act of learning it really is “mere play”, as Zamenhof hoped it would be.
MangaGamer kindly provided MoeGamer with a review copy of The Expression: Amrilato for the purposes of this feature.
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