Esperanto Language Blog

2nd gen native Esperanto speaker: Rolf Fantom Posted by on Feb 3, 2011 in Interview, Native speakers

Rolf Fantom

Today I have a second generation native Esperanto speaker with me, Rolf Fantom. According to Ethnologue as published in 2008, there are 200-2000 native Esperanto speakers in the world. Now he answers all our burning questions.

You identify yourself as a second generation native Esperanto speaker. Does that mean one of your parents is also a native Esperanto speaker? How did that happen?

My mum’s parents brought her up speaking Esperanto as they had met through Esperanto and it was their main common language at the time of her birth.

When you were growing up, did just your mom or also your dad also speak to you only in Esperanto?

Both of them. I remember having to translate between my little sister and my grandparents as I had learned some English at school, and she was not yet at school.

Growing up in England, how much contact did you have with English on a daily basis?

None until my big brother started school. My parents didn’t have many friends and we were expected to pick up English at school later on. English was deemed the stronger language, so Esperanto was given a head start.

If I understand you correctly, you must have started school not really speaking English. What were your challenges making friends and learning? Do you wish your parents had not raised you native Esperanto?

It was obvious to the other children that my family was different. I think the hardest thing was the attitudes and assertions that permeate the world of those who are firm believers in the ideals of Esperanto. Assertions such as ‘Esperanto is much easier than every other language’ and ‘If only people could talk to each other using Esperanto, we would have peace’. When you’re young you repeat such things without thinking about them, a bit like religious assertions. Growing up involved challenging these assertions and learning that even if you do believe in them, constantly going on about them like your parents do can severely damage your social status!

I hear a lot of native Esperanto speakers go to the Universala Kongreso and hang out with other Esperanto kids… what was that typically like?

Mum was a co-organiser of the International Children’s Congress so it was like a family holiday and being at school with your mum as a teacher. Later, as teenagers, we started to go to other events. I ended up running one of the events for a few years. On one occasion I got to go to Japan, then my parents decided to go too, so I was half way around the world in totally unfamilliar surroundings, but with the familiarities of family and Esperanto culture around all the time.

As you grow older, are you still active with Esperanto? Do you have the feeling that most natives stay in the community? Do you feel like there’s a divide between those who speak it natively and those who learned it on their own?

There is no significant divide between native speakers and good non-native speakers. There is a certain level of exasperation amongst my generation where most people are torn between living in the real world and a sense of cultural belonging. Most native speakers didn’t choose Esperanto, so don’t have a firm belief in the underlying ideals. Merely a deep irritation of the embarrassment of the older generation and for those who work within the organising teams of various events, a wish for the familiar environment which tormented and charmed our childhoods to prevail for its own sake.

We may be children of an ideal, of false hope and narrow pipe dreams, but it is our culture. We have no hijab or kippah to mark this culture, no capital city or population centre, but it is there nonetheless. A hundred years of history and a lifetime of knowing that the ideals of the culture which surround you is based on an unrealistic dream and repeated assertions by those who hold to the dream like sailors on a sinking ship. And as for those who see English as the cause of all the ills of the world, I think they have a lot to answer for in the demise of the strength of Esperanto culture by alienating those who have a realistic perspective on the world. I have bowed out of Esperanto, more or less. It is still present in my life, but it has taken until I am nearly thirty to achieve a reasonable balance.

Just like religion, I believe my future children should have the choice about how they live their lives. If they wish to learn it then they should make the choice. I shall not force it upon them as I do not believe the benefits outweigh the psychological difficulties involved in being brought up in a culture with no hope and little practicality. I have gained much from Esperanto, but it has also taken its significant toll. For those who choose it, however, it can work wonders.

Thank you very much for your time and the fascinating look into a native Esperanto speaker’s life!

If you have any questions for Rolf, please leave them in the comments below and then I can select the most interesting ones for a followup interview sometime in the future.

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About the Author: Chuck Smith

I was born in the US, but Esperanto has led me all over the world. I started teaching myself Esperanto on a whim in 2001, not knowing how it would change my life. The timing couldn’t have been better; around that same time I discovered Wikipedia in it’s very early stages and launched the Esperanto version. When I decided to backpack through Europe, I found Esperanto speakers to host me. These connections led me to the Esperanto Youth Organization in Rotterdam, where I worked for a year, using Esperanto as my primary language. Though in recent years I’ve moved on to other endeavors like iOS development, I remain deeply engrained in the Esperanto community, and love keeping you informed of the latest news. The best thing that came from learning Esperanto has been the opportunity to connect with fellow speakers around the globe, so feel free to join in the conversation with a comment! I am now the founder and CTO of the social app Amikumu.


  1. Leland Bryant Ross:

    Multan dankon al Rolf pro la honestaj informoj.

  2. Bill Chapman:

    Dankon. Vere tre interesa. Mi admiras la honestecon de Rolf.

    Thank you. Really interesting. I admire Rolf’s honesty.

  3. Tim Owen:

    I really enjoyed that read!

    It would be good to see more of them with Rolf, who seems keen to provide proper insight instead of giving the routine answers that one might have expected.

  4. Tim Owen:

    OK, questions that Rolf might like to answer next time:

    * Are his experiences common? Do other native speakers feel the same way? Much as some religious children grow into very religious adults and others fall away, are there Esperanto equivalents?

    * What about good experiences? Surely there are good things that being a native speaker has brought him.

    * What’s the recipe for success? Teaching Esperanto as the first foreign language once the children already know the first? Both at the same time? Varied interests instead of everything revolving around the one?

    * Is he a language person?

    I’m sure that more questions will pop into my head at some point 🙂

  5. hoketo:

    My son Nils is 4th generation native Esperanto speaker. My grandfather learnt Esperanto 1908.

  6. Juddski:

    I couldn’t agree more with Mr Fantom.

    Although, placas al mi futbalo

  7. Heather Eason:

    Thank you Rolf – really refreshing and although my experience growing up was slightly different, oh how I can identify with what you say!

    I remember being amazed at school that no-one knew who Zamenhof was, that teachers told me I couldn’t possible speak Esperanto “as it died out years ago”, that friends’ parents told them I was “making it all up”. Rolf is right that you unwittingly become an Esperanto nuisance by repeating cliches that you’ve always been told.

    Although I still have some involvement in ‘organized Esperanto’ it often puzzles non-native speakers that I’m less keen than they are – after all, as Rolf states, we didn’t choose this lifestyle!

    My first language will always be considered an oddity by many, will never be recognized as official by any administration, will never benefit from the political funding given to many minority languages.

    But life in the Esperanto milieu has given me positive benefits – a lifelong love of languages and an understanding of how language works. More importantly international contacts and experiences from an early age.

    For everyone, where you are born and what language you learn first is partly accident of birth, partly the choice of other people over which you have no control. Worth remembering that I think.

  8. Torben Berndt:

    in what language are you thinking, and how do you feel about other languages? Do you grasp Esperanto rules like all adjectives must end on -o, or don’t you think this way? Did Esperanto influence you in the way you think of other languages like Spanish or Italian?

  9. Elisabeth:

    I think that Rolf’s family is a very special case. It is quite unusual that parents bring up their children *only* with Esperanto. That is is quite unwise to do.

    I’m sure that if you interview Leo S., you will hear quite different experiences.

  10. Miland Joshi:

    I felt sad reading Rolf’s story, but I was also struck by the parallel with people who are brought up with a religion and see their enthusiasm for it decline as adults.
    Good luck to Rolf. I hope that his children will have enough knowledge about Zamenhof and Esperanto, to be open to any genuine interest in the language later on.

  11. Miland Joshi:

    A question for Rolf: What do you think of the prospects for Esperanto as a bridge language in Africa, particularly between the francophone and anglophone parts?

  12. Betty Chatterjee:

    I too enjoyed reading this admirably honest account.

    ”And as for those who see English as the cause of all the ills of the world, I think they have a lot to answer for in the demise of the strength of Esperanto culture by alienating those who have a realistic perspective on the world.”

    In my opinion you are quite right. There’s no sense in putting down other languages or trying to market Esperanto as a kind of patent cure-all.

  13. hoketo:

    @ Heather Eason
    Mi supozas, ke ni devus koni nin. Via fraulina nomo estis?

  14. Tim Owen:

    @ hoketo

    Tio ja estas ŝia fraŭlina nomo 🙂

  15. hoketo:

    @tim owen
    Dankon pro la respondo. Tiam mi tre vershajne ne konas shin.

  16. gabriel:

    To be honest, it sounds to me like Rolf’s parents were particularly extreme, since they spoke no other language at home.
    I think a lot of native speakers continues sporadically going to Esperanto meetings as adults as they find that environment familiar and relaxing, but they don’t want to be active in the movement, since they see it as hopeless in achieving its aims and “their parents’ thing”. That is certainly my case.

  17. hoketo:

    Saluton Gabriel,

    pardonu, ke mi respondas en Esperanto, mi ne volas submetighi al la peno, skribi en la angla lingvo, kiun mi ne sufiche bone regas.
    Mi estas denaska Espeantisto, tamen sufiche longe tre aktivis en la organizita movado. Tamen mi konscias, ke tio okazas malofte.
    Aktivi por Esperanto signifas, ke oni memstare konvinkighis pri Esperanto kaj mem lernis ghin. Denaskuloj simple posedas la lingvon kaj ne necesis konvinki ilin pri Esperanto.

    Miaj gepatroj neniam devigis min, aktivi por Esperanto, sed bonvoleme finance subtenis min partopreni en IS-oj, IJK-oj kaj UK-oj. Mi dekomence havis kontaktoj an aliaj infanoj, kiuj denaske parolas Esperanton. Estis bonshanco, ke en apuda urbo Münster loghis familio, kie chiuj infanoj parolis denas ke Esperanto kaj ni ofte vizitis ilin (ne pro Esperanto).
    Char dum interncaiaj renkontighoj supre menciitaj mi trovis kelkajn amikojn, kiuj estis au pli poste estighis aktivaj movadanoj, mi helpis ilin, kiel ja okazas inter amikoj. Kaj subite mi estis aktivulo en la organizita movado. Iel tie okazis kvazau per si mem. Mi ne aktivis en la movado pro miaj gepatroj.

    Char regule ni havis eksterlandajn gastojn, la uzo de Esperanto estis tute normala afero. Kiel infano mi ne havis koncepton pri lingvo, simple estis tiel, ke mi sciis, ke oni parolas kun kelkaj homoj en unu maniero, kun kelkaj en alia maniero. La ideon pri linvo mi nur ekhavis, kiam kiel unuan lingvon mi lernis la latinan en la lernejo.

    Por reveni al demando, supre menciita. Mi pensas (kaj songhas) en ambau lingvoj – tamen ne samtempe. Nur kiam mi aktive uzas la lingvon, kiel ekzemple dum Uk-oj, kiam mi tuttage uzas la lingvon, mi pensas en Esperanto. Nur se temas pri kalkulado mi preskau ekskluzive faras tion en la germana.

    Kompreneble estis por mi granda bonshanco, ke mia edzino ankau parolis Esperanto, tiel ke mi povis daurigi mian vivon “en du mondoj”. Por eviti miskomprenon: mi ne intence serchis Esperanto-parolantan edzinon – tamen ja ne suprize, ke tio okazis, char dum longa tempo mi pasigis mian libertempon che Esperantaj renkontighoj. Kaj tiel simple okazis.

    Tamen ne pensu, ke mi estas fanatikulo pri Esperanto. Ke mia filo ankau parolas la lingvon, simple estas la rezulto de multaj gastoj kiujn ni havis kaj kompreneble pro la partopreno en diversaj aranghoj. Ke mia filo parolas Esperanton, mi nur tre malfrue rimarkis. Li evidente ne volis uzi la lingvon dum mia cheesto. Sed tio estas principa afero de lia karaktero: li nur faras ion, kiam li scias, ke li bone faras. Sed tion mi nun ne volas detaligi.

    Se unu anglalingvano tradukus mian tekston, mi ghojus.


  18. Tim Owen:

    (Translation of hoketo’s post, by request/trauduko de la afiŝo de hoketo laŭpete)

    Sorry about responding in Esperanto, but I don’t want to put myself to the rigours of trying to write in English, a language I don’t overly know. I’m a native speaker of Esperanto, but I’ve also been aktive in the organised movement for a long time. I admit that this doesn’t happen very often. Being an active Esperantist means that one has convinced oneself about Esperanto and has learnt it of one’s own accord. Native speakers simply already have the language, and don’t have to be convinced about it.

    My parents never forced me to become active in Esperanto, but kindly gave me financial help to participate in the different international events. From the beginning I was in touch with other children who spoke Esperanto natively. It was fortunate that there was a family in the neighbouring town with native Esperanto-speaking children so we often visited them (though not because of Esperanto).

    Since I made friends in these international meetings and, as friends do, helped them out, I found myself being an active member in the organised movement, which came about all by itself. I didn’t do it for my parents.

    Because I regularly host international visitors using Esperanto is an absolutely normal thing. As a child I had no concept of language; it was simply that I knew to speak with some people in one way, and with others in another. I only started getting an idea about language when I started learning Latin in school.

    Back on topic: I think (and dream) in both languages, though not at the same time. Only when I actively use the language (such as during the World Conference, where I’m surrounded by it) do I think in Esperanto. It’s only really counting and arithmetic that I do in German and not in Esperanto.

    Understandably it’s very fortunate for me that my wife speaks Esperanto, and so I’m able to continue living in “two worlds”. And just to be clear – I didn’t set out to find an Esperanto-speaking wife, though it’s not a surprise that this happened, since I’ve long been spending much of my free time at Esperanto events. It simply happened like that.

    Please don’t think me an Esperanto fanatic. My son speaks Esperanto simply as a result of our having so many guests and, of course, of participating in events. I only noticed that he spoke Esperanto later in his life. He obviously didn’t want to use the language in my presence. But that’s just part of his personality; he only does things that he knows he’s good at them, but I don’t want to go into it.

    If an English-speaker could translate this, I’d be very happy.

  19. gabriel:

    Do bone Helmut, mi absolute komprenas kaj respektas vian situacion.
    Ankaŭ mi kelk-foje trovigxis en la posicio helpi organizi Esperanto kunvenoj kaj aktivi por Esperanto kvazaŭ “sen-vole”. Tamen ĝi ne estas mia cxefa intereso en la vivo, kaj mi kutime okupiĝas pri aliaj aferoj.
    Mi persone ne parolos al miaj filoj en Esperanto, kaj mi komprenas ke ankaŭ vi ne faras tion. Mi kredas ke paroli al ili en via denaska lingvo estas pli senso-hava kaj natura. Eĉ se mia edzino estus Esperantistino mi tamen ne farus. Mi ne riproĉas al miaj gepatroj ke ili faris tion, sed en la fino Esperanto ne estis inventita por tio, ĉu ne?

  20. hoketo:

    Por eviti miskompreno: mi ja paroli al mia filo Esperanto, sed li chiam respondis en la Germana. Mi supozas, ke estis hezitemo liaflanka, char li bele lau sia kompreno ne jam sufiche bone parolas la lingvon.
    Hodiau mi – depende de la situacio – ja parolas kun li en Esperanto. Ne nepre estas chiam objektiva kauzo por tio.
    Esperanto certe ne estis farita por havi denaske parolantajn infanojn. Sed en kazo kiel la mia – kiam ni geedzighis mia edzino ne parolis la germanan lingvon – Esperanto estis la normala familia lingvo.
    Kun mia amiko Ulrich Bradenburg, nuntempe la germana ambasadoro en Moskvo, mi chiam parolas Esperanton, char tion ni faris jam de infanagho.

  21. Miland:

    Saluton Hoketo

    Tre interese, ke germana ambasadoro en Moskvo estas Esperantisto! Eble li konas aliajn en la internacia diplomata komunumo, kiuj estas Esperantistoj.

  22. jakov:

    Saluton al cxiuj! Dankon al rolfo pro la intervjuo!

    I have a question for rolf (kaj ankaux la aliajn denaskulojn):
    What are the native languages of your parents? Did your parents not talk to you in their other languages? I think today scientists say that children can easily be brought up multilingually, would you talk to your children in all languages you are native/confortable?

  23. Robb Kvasnak:

    It is interesting that the denaskuloj don’t use the -n ending at times but at other times they do. They wrote: Mi ne parolas Esperanto instead of Mi ne parolas Esperanton.
    Interese ke la denaskuloj ne ĉiam uzas la -n finaĵojn foje. Ili skribis: “Mi ne parolas Esperanto” anstataŭ “Mi ne parolas Esperanton.”
    Kvankam mi estas usonano, mia gepatra lingvo estas la germana (Though I am an American, my first language is German.) Kiam mi estis infano mi ne uzis la akuzativon korekte en la germana sed mi lernis tion en la lernejo. (When I was a kid, i didn’t use the accusative correctly but I learned that at school.) Eble la denaskuloj ne havis formalan edukon en Esperanto. (Maybe the denaskuloj didn’t have formal schooling in Esperanto.)

  24. Bernardus:

    I think his point of view can’t apply to all the native speakers. I don’t know any, but I do know people raised with a foreign mother tongue. It doesn’t have that utopian culture component Rolf mentioned, but they did have to grow up knowing that they had a home language and another one for everyone else, and having a foreign culture home and another regional one to share with everyone else. That’s not bad at all, that’s cultural richness.

    I think parents raising a family on a language and culture different to the official should not be a problem, but only if they don’t isolate their children, and assimilate the regional culture and language too.

  25. Robb Kvasnak:

    As I said earlier, I grew up speaking German as my first language and I am very grateful for this. Most Americans remain monolinguals all of their lives. I had a head start and eventually added a long list of other languages to my knowledge. Yes, I was teased in school by other children because I spoke German (with a girl in my class who was in the same position as myself). But love for my grandmother kept me a German speaker. It wasn’t until I was 12 years old that I had official instruction in German grammar in a neighboring town on Saturdays.
    If I had kids, I would raise them to be bilinguals and Esperanto would be an option. I would want my kids to be world citizens.

  26. Marshall:

    Esperanto is a language. Not a culture.

    Esperanto has no dance, no folkways. It has no religious beliefs. It has no geography. It has no textiles. It has no folk crafts. It has no folk practices.

    It is simply a choice of whether or not one wants to learn the language or not. It is also – secondarily and not exclusively – whether or not you believe in the ideal of a neutral language. That is it.

    It is NOT a culture. Let’s stop trying to exoticize the language and make it something it’s not.

  27. Ros’ Haruo:

    Languages do not have cultures; people do, especially in groups. If languages had cultures as opposed to being tools people groups use to express and share their cultures, then I’ll bet you anything Finnish culture 2012 would look a lot less like Swedish culture 2012 than it does. Esperanto, too, is used by a people group to carry their culture, some of which has been locally developed and does in fact consist of all the various arts and crafts and whatnot that Marshall denies it has. But he is right. It is not necessary to participate in either the creation or the enjoyment (or disparagement) of Esperanto culture in order to be an Esperantist; that is in the first place a matter of choosing to learn and use the language.

  28. Israel:

    I’m surprised nobody has even mentioned the accent. We all know Esperantists have different accents, but what would the accent of a native speaker be like? As for those who are 4th generation speakers, is your Esperanto accent anything similar to your regional accent? Can we finally say that there exists such thing as an Esperanto accent?

  29. Amanda Higley Schmidt:

    Thanks Rolf, for giving us a window into your experience growing up as a native speaker. I really feel for you, being subjected to society’s ignorance and derision regarding your family’s language. Being embarrassed by your parents’ idealism must have been really difficult. It’s really sad hearing your story, but thanks to your openness, we can learn from your experience.

    I speak Esperanto with my two daughters, and I hope that in some ways I’ve avoided subjecting my girls to that kind of embarrassment, thanks in large part to the excellent book, Esperanto Sen Mitoj (Esperanto Without Myths). The way I present Esperanto to people is much less ‘unrealistic’, ‘idealistic’, or what have you, than the typical propagandistic language Esperantists tend to use. When people ask what language I’m speaking to my girls,I just tell them it’s an international planned language that I learned in college, it was intended to be used worldwide to help create world peace, which obviously didn’t happen on a large scale — but that there’s an international community of people who speak it that are really interesting, internationally-minded folks… that I’ve found a lot of friends through it, travelled extensively through the host service (Pasporta Servo), etc. I don’t come across as a bible-thumping religious missionary, trying to convert everyone in sight, basically. I try to just share my experience and never ‘TRUDI’ (intrude, insist).

    People’s reaction is always positive with this approach; I’ve NEVER had someone think Esperanto is ridiculous, in fact. It helps that most people here have never heard of it, so they don’t have any kind of negative impression already. My older daughter’s teacher, schoolmates and their parents think it’s interesting, and one dad has started learning it and joined us at the CA Esperanto Conference in April 2013. I’ve even started teaching Esperanto as an after-school enrichment course, at my older daughter’s request.

    I’m curious whether you think this approach would help prevent in my daughters’ experience some of the negative experiences you had. I know they will always feel a little different from their peers, just like any multilingual child does; yet I hope to continue to cultivate a positive impression among their peers, so they are admired and respected for being different, instead of ridiculed. So far so good, but I am very interested in any other suggestions you might have (besides giving up speaking it to them, that is… Esperanto is a big part of my life, and I would feel like I was stifling a part of me not to include them in my Esperanto ‘family’.)

    • Libby:

      @Amanda Higley Schmidt You left out one big detail of your approach: whether or not you’re letting your daughters have any *other* native language *too*, or you’re making sure your daughters’ *only* native language is Esperanto.

      Maybe the kids hassling Rolf targeted him because he wasn’t a native speaker of English, and would have targeted him no matter if his native language was Esperanto or Spanish or Russian?

      Maybe Rolf’s schoolwork was just as difficult for non-native speakers of English no matter if their native languages were Esperanto or Spanish or Chinese?

  30. Rolf Fantom:


    I think it’s just important to ensure that whilst it’s a big part of your life it doesn’t become a dominant part of theirs to the exclusion of other interests. I’m glad I had a multicultural upbringing, however it’s nowhere near as multicultural as many of the kids whom I teach who have parents who originate from far flung places and grow up balancing their parents’ often non-European culture with the native English culture.

    There are many Esperanto speakers who benefit from an interesting and fairly unique world view. There are many Esperanto activists who suffer from a paradoxically blinkered unique world view. It has been my experience that the boundaries between users and activists are very blurred, and it is necessary to constantly explain to some activists why you are not dedicated like they are or motivated in the same way. The peer pressure within ‘the movement’ to ‘become active’ is strong, and often the activities are poorly managed and inefficient to an extent where many people look back and wonder “is this what I failed my degree for”.

    My advice would be to avoid it becoming too much of an identity. Esperanto is something I do (albeit only occasionally now). It is not something I am. There are too many people for whom it is an identity in lieu of a personal identity. It’s a wonderful language. It presents many opportunities for many people, but it also tends to polarise its speakers making it difficult at times to just be a speaker.

    I’m not in a position to judge how your approach fits in with your community, although it does sound like it works well for you :). What I do know is that ensuring people know and feel that they have a real choice in their level of involvement is never a bad thing.

    Not sure I answered your question fully, but I hope it helped in some way.