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Do we have a reasonable estimate for the number of Esperanto speakers in the world?

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    No. I don't believe any such method exists for any given language. – Oliver Mason Aug 23 '16 at 17:45
  • It is hard to say what "scientifically accurate" method is: There are definitely statistical techniques for estimation of the number of speakers, and as long as you accept a large error (which we do accept on many estimates in science). I assume "scientifically accurate" as one which comes from certain measurements and also estimates the error, rather than being based on "gut feeling". It is not that we know nothing, it is that we have a large range of estimates. We similarly estimate the number of extra solar planets and their size, is that not "scientifically accurate"? – Jiri Lebl Aug 23 '16 at 18:49
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    I believe "reasonably accurate" is the intent here. I don't believe the author is trying to certify if current methodology can distinguish between 1,000,047 and 1,000,048 speakers, or that they're actually looking for a discussion about the method itself. See if this edited version works better. – Robert Cartaino Aug 23 '16 at 20:56
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There are two problems with counting the number of Esperanto speakers:

  1. It is not clear what the definition of "Esperanto speaker" should be. Depending on the chosen definition, the number can be in a completely different order of magnitude.
  2. Even once a definition is fixed, it is very difficult to reasonably estimate the number of speakers, because speakers don't have to register anywhere, and they are such a small proportion of the world population that one can not meaningfully estimate their numbers through polls.

The number of speakers of other languages is usually estimated by concentrating on areas where they are spoken either by the majority or by a sizable minority, and using the population numbers for those areas. This approach doesn't work for Esperanto. (It also doesn't work for estimating the number of second and foreign language speakers of a language, which is why the estimates for these numbers vary much more than the estimated for native speakers in the case of widely spoken languages.)

The first problem mentioned above was illustrated well by the linguist Jouko Lindstedt, who published the following estimated for different definitions of "Esperanto speaker" in 1996:

  • 1,000 have Esperanto as their native language.
  • 10,000 speak it fluently.
  • 100,000 can use it actively.
  • 1,000,000 understand a large amount passively.
  • 10,000,000 have studied it to some extent at some time.

The use of powers of ten was intentional, so as to show that these are just rough estimates, not precise counts based on actual research. Nevertheless, I think that they are quite good estimates (probably between double and half the real numbers, at least for some reasonable way of making his rather vague definitions more precise). Probably the number of 1,000 native speakers was a bit of an optimistic estimate in 1996, but in the meantime, the number of native speakers has probably increased, so it seems a more realistic estimate now (but again, "native speaker" would have to be defined more precisely; I know a number of Esperanto speakers who are borderline cases of what one might want to call "native speaker").

Some have suggested that the numbers have probably increased since 1996. While I agree that it has increased for native speakers (though the 1996 estimate was probably too optimistic at the time), I doubt it has increased for the other categories. Probably the numbers of the last three categories have significantly increased in English-speaking countries since the launch of the Duolingo Esperanto course, but note that native English speakers are still a small minority in Esperantujo. In many countries the number of Esperanto speakers has been stagnant since 1996, and it has even decreased in some. The average number of participants of the main Esperanto congress UK has decreased since 1996, and this decrease is probably only partially explained by increased interest in smaller Esperanto events.

Despite the number of Esperanto speakers probably being stagnant, the usage of Esperanto has certainly increased a lot because of the advent of the Internet, which has made it easier for Esperanto speakers to actually use Esperanto. While Jouko Lindstedt's estimates were based on degree of knowledge of Esperanto, one can also make similar estimates for definitions of "Esperanto speaker" based on actual usage of Esperanto. Given that usage of Esperanto is more visible than knowledge of Esperanto, these estimates can be made with a bit more confidence.

Based on my knowledge of Esperantujo as a very active Esperanto speaker, based on considerations about the number of Esperanto speakers in my surroundings and about how Esperanto activity in my surroundings differs from the world average, and based on statistics about the listeners of the Esperanto internet radio station Muzaiko, I have made the following estimates of the number of actual users of Esperanto, based on four different definitions of "actual user":

  • People that actively or passively use Esperanto at least 10 hours a year: between 30,000 and 2,000,000 (probably between 120,000 and 500,000)
  • People that actively or passively use Esperanto at least 100 hours a year: between 3,000 and 200,000 (probably between 12,000 and 50,000)
  • People that actively use Esperanto at least 10 hours a year: between 5,000 and 100,000 (probably between 15,000 and 35,000)
  • People that actively use Esperanto at least 100 hours a year: between 1,000 and 20,000 (probably between 3,000 and 7,000)

The numbers might seem a bit low compared to the numbers presented by Jouko Lindstedt, but keep in mind that active usage of Esperanto requires being among the around 100,000 speakers of Jouko Lindstedt's third category, but being among them doesn't guarantee that you actually use it a lot (many people use Esperanto actively for a short time, and then stop engaging with Esperanto, while their knowledge of Esperanto only slowly evaporates; some of them come back many years later, but many don't).

  • "based on considerations about the number of Esperanto speakers in my surroundings and about how Esperanto activity in my surroundings differs from the world average" i like that approach. i tend compare the activity if the esperanto community with that of my religious community. when travelling i always encountered both, and i could tell that esperanto activity was less. since in my religion everyone is registered, those numbers can be verified, and esperanto numbers therefore had to be less. in that light, your estimates look very realistic. – eMBee Aug 24 '16 at 15:51
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    To me as a everyday Esperanto user 100 hours a year sounds like nothing, depending on what "use" exactly means. Maybe you should give as a reference how many hours a year do people use their native language according to your definition of "use". – Johannes Mueller Aug 26 '16 at 10:32
  • The first category is even too small. I would like to include the following category: People that actively or passively use Esperanto at least once a year (at least in the past twelve months; no matter how many hours). My estimation is that there are between 100,000 and 500,000 people in this category. - This is based mainly on the amount of Esperanto usage - wikipedia, dictionaries, songs, books... I can't imagine that there are less than 100,000 people creating and using all this. I don't think it's more than half a million - we have to consider Esperanto speakers are well educated. – Lu Wunsch-Rolshoven Nov 9 '16 at 6:06
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According to Wikipedia, a linguist named Jouko Lindstedt, an expert on native-born Esperanto speakers, presented the following to show the overall proportions of language capabilities within the Esperanto community:

  • 1,000 have Esperanto as their native language.
  • 10,000 speak it fluently.
  • 100,000 can use it actively.
  • 1,000,000 understand a large amount passively.
  • 10,000,000 have studied it to some extent at some time.

source

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    This estimate is from 1996, ie 20 years old. I would assume that the number has increased due to the rise of the Internet and the easier access to information on Esperanto. – Oliver Mason Aug 23 '16 at 18:02
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Over a million speakers.

I'm a bit shocked no one mentioned the extensive scientific survey by Sidney S. Culbert to determine the number of Esperanto speakers worldwide. If you want all the details, you can read them in his letter to David Wolff here: http://www.panix.com/~dwolff/docs/culbert-methods.html

He basically estimates the number to be between 1-2 million with a possibility of error between 1 and 2 million, so I feel that at the time of that letter, there are certainly more than a million speakers, and considering that Esperanto is always growing, except during world wars, I feel confident in asserting that there are over a million Esperanto speakers.

If you wish to research the study in more depth, all of the correspondence between Culbert and Wolff can be found at http://www.panix.com/~dwolff/docs/ including Esperanto translation.

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Here is a rough estimate based on something new. The new site https://esperantujo.directory/ has 1118 esperantists when I last looked at it and from this includes 34 Hungarians. In 2011, 8397 people in Hungary indicated they know Esperanto, and given the growth it is probably at least 10000 that would answer so nowadays. On the other hand 35000 passed exams in Esperanto. So let's say we estimate that between 10 and 35 thousand Hungarians know Esperanto. 1118/34 times 10 thousand and 1118/34 times 35 thousand are then rough estimates. So according to this there are on the order of 328-1150 thousand people in the world who know Esperanto. But this has a very large error, and this error comes from the fact that the above directory is of course not uniformly known. Using only census results and Estonia we get approximate 233 thousand, using Russia or New Zealand we get approximately 34 thousand, using Latvia we get approximately 192 thousand. A few weeks ago, the lone esperantist on the directory from Estonia was not yet there, and so the estimate would have been that there are infinitely many esperantists in the world using Estonia, which would be a somewhat sensational result. Hungary, having lots of esperantists is probably your best bet since there is a "large sample" of them that could have conceivably added their name to the directory, so estimating the proportion of esperantists who add their name to the directory then has perhaps the least error. There are a lot more attempts listed on https://eo.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statistiko_de_Esperantujo and they all come up with somewhat different answers. From what it seems to me is that there are probably on the order of several hundred thousand to perhaps one or two million people who "know Esperanto". Then, of course, there is the question of what is "to know Esperanto" and whom should we count, even if we knew how to count them in the first place. You similarly have widely ranging estimates for how many people "know English" with estimates ranging from several hundred million to 1.5 billion or so, and similar questions about what it is to "know English".

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    I think if you use Hungary for your calculations you are likely to get numbers that are way too large. The reason is that in Hungary it's possible on a relatively large scale to satisy a foreign language requirement at school by taking Esperanto. The result is lots of people who learn Esperanto only because it's the easiest option. I think we can safely assume that a lot of them will not appear as Esperantists anywhere on the internet or elsewhere. – Hans Adler Aug 23 '16 at 19:25
  • That is an argument against using the 35 thousand estimate, not against not using Hungary at all. If using the census estimate then those are people who think of themselves as Esperanto language speakers. Some proportion of those that take the exam are going to be "equivalent" to other people on the globe who learned Esperanto for whatever other reason. The question is, does it make it more or less likely for them to register on the directory and that is not clear. You are correct, but Hungary is the best we have unless some country with lots of esperantists would provide precise data. – Jiri Lebl Aug 23 '16 at 21:03
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It's impossible to know for sure (just as it's impossible to know how many people speak English) because it's not clear what level qualifies. Does someone who only has the basics count? Or do they have to be fluent? But that only raises the question of what counts as the basics or fluency.

Plus the fact that Esperantists are spread all over the world makes it even harder to count them. Estimates usually say around 2 million.

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On Duolingo there are currently 501k learners on the English Esperanto course (no number is given for the brand new Spanish one). Obviously they will not all speak it fluently, but I'd say that this would have boosted older estimates by a few 100k.

Jiri Hana in his 1998 Master thesis quotes Funk and Wagnall's The World Almanac, part of "Microsoft Bookshelf 1994" as giving an estimated range of between 1 and 10 million speakers, with about 1000 native speakers.

The 1000/10,000/100,000/... estimates do look suspiciously regular to me (and are 20 years old), so I don't trust them. I have also come across the 2m estimate before; this seems reasonable, and with a projected recent increase due to more learning opportunities my own guess would be about 2.5 million now (2016)

  • I guess those estimates are regular like that for exactly that reason: they couldn't get more precise than that, so they just give you an idea about the magnitude of the numbers. It would be more misleading if they were 1005, 9734, 101517, because that way it would look like they actually counted all those 101517 people. – marcus Aug 23 '16 at 19:34
  • The Spanish-Esperanto course on Duolingo has not jet started. However, you can see that a little less than 15k people have signed up to be notified when it starts. – Lyubomir Vasilev Aug 24 '16 at 7:29
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Some years ago I made an estimation like that of Jiri Lebl. But my question was: How many people would say they speak Esperanto, if asked in a census.

  • My estimation for a possible result in a world wide census was 160,000 to 300,000 worldwide, based on the census numbers in Hungary (2001) and Lithuania (2001). (Please note, this was before the mass instruction of Esperanto in Hungary.)

I published the study "Popolnombradoj donas indikon pri la kvanto de esperantistoj" in Libera Folio (2009).

Speaking about censuses, it is worth having a look on the actual question. Hungary and Lithuania ask about foreign languages - it seems to me that in Russia and New Zealand the question is less clear (does anyone know the actual questions?). And please note that the percentage of Esperanto speakers in a country with a big language (like English and Russian) is much lower than in the rest of the world. (This is indicated by the number of members of the World Esperanto Association (UEA) per one million inhabitants.)

I suppose the number of people saying "I speak Esperanto" is very near to the number of people having used Esperanto at least once in the last twelve months.

To sum up I think it's safe to say that some hundred thousand people worldwide have used Esperanto during the last twelve months and that some million people learned Esperanto to some degree. And we should not forget to add that there are about one or two thousand native Esperanto speakers. (This shows how serious this language community is about their international language Esperanto.)

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