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EAB News 2008-10-31: London Language Show

EAB at the Language Show

EAB was present at The Language Show, Olympia, London from 2008-10-31 to 2008-11-02. Here is a personal account by Tim Owen, one of the Esperantists on the stand. [Original source]

Esperanto @ The Language Show

The Language Show takes place annually at the London Olympia. The Esperanto-Asocio de Britio was there, as was I, for my third visit.

It was the usual hectic week leading up to the event for me, preparing a new copy of Saluton and flyer, and adding subtitles to the excellent documentary Esperanto Estas, viewable in six parts here.

I'm very proud of that issue of Saluton. I think it hit the mark that I was targetting. I wanted something that looked good and was informative to the reader, almost as a series of newspaper articles about Esperanto. Copies are downloadable from here.

As for the event itself ...

Bridging the end of October and the start of November was the annual Language Show, emanating as usual from the London Olympia. Esperanto was present yet again as EAB hired another stall to promote the international language.

Seeing as this was my third visit to the event, I feel a little better qualified to talk about how I feel it went, compared to when I wrote a short letter to Update after initially dipping my toe into the water in 2006.

One thing hasn't changed at all: The Language Show is predominantly a commercial fayre, all the big names in publishing present en masse, alongside language schools abroad, firms that issue qualifications in English-teaching, and recruiters from various agencies. In this field we were something of a novelty, an organisation that would go to the considerable expense of renting and manning a stall without the view of selling things.

Previous years gave us something of a reality check. The three-person organising team (Gavan Fantom, Helen Fantom, and me) had learnt from experience that the majority of visitors would be anything but knowledgeable about Esperanto. The sad fact is that most people wouldn't even know what the language is. Of those that weren't ignorant of it, the great majority would believe it to already be dead, a thing of the past, an idealistic experiment confined to history's burial ground. There remains a third category that I have encountered at several reprises, excitedly announcing that we're a Spanish stand.

Of course, it goes without say that our goal was to give a positive impression of Esperanto. The challenge was decide how exactly we should go about doing so. After all, the revelation that we speak an artificial language would come across strangely if announced so brusquely.

The organising team decided that professionalism was a key point. It was decided that every person on the stall would have to wear a suit. We also decided that Esperanto would be the working language at the stand. Although seemingly obvious once one thinks about it, this important facet of our identity hadn't been used properly before. The presence of various printed materials gives a clear indication to passers-by that Esperanto works on paper. Hearing people actually speaking the language is something else altogether, as well I remember from my own initial encounter with Esperanto. We decided that volunteers at the stall would have to be capable of expressing themselves near fluently in non-anglicised Esperanto.

Of course, there was more than just a human contingent representing EAB, and it was important that this professionalism extended to our display. We were particularly fortunate that modern-day Esperanto publications have hit new highs in their appearance. Gone are the shabby paper covers. In their place are glossy manuals. The Springboard posters and exercises are wonderful, reminiscent of the best that the professionals have to offer. The presence of good-looking versions of well-known material such as The Lord of the Rings is a boon. Esperanto becomes real in the eyes of others, I'm sure, when they see such things. The books could be Hungarian, Japanese, or Indian translations; the point is, Esperanto is put on the same level as other languages all by virtue of presenting itself well. Low-quality photocopies scream small-time club; professionally designed and printed output indicates an organisation that takes pride in itself, something worth a peek. I consider it a very good thing to see such professional-level work being produced in Esperantujo over the last few years. The content, we all know, was always high quality; now the packaging, the thing that the observer sees, is matching it.

Of course, there was no expectation that 99% of people would hand over money to be able to take our attractive display items home with them, and it was imperative that we be able to hand something out for visitors to peruse once their day was over. We needed leaflets, and the question of what to provide but us additional dilemmas. We didn't want to undermine the good work that our professional display items accomplished by handing out sub-standard, noticeably homemade material. We also didn't want to do what I'd seen happen in prior years, where the poor passer-by is swamped with five or eight separate leaflets. The decision was made to produce flyer that would be our standard handout. It was designed to be attractive and provide the bare minimum of easy-reference internet links. The lucky sites featured were EAB's site, JEB's forums, (for free online classes in a variety of languages), and a site where Esperanto music is downloadable free of charge (since it would likely pleasantly surprise people to hear for themselves that Esperanto is a language that can be used in songs just like any others). A special edition of Saluton, JEB's one-time newsletter, was designed and printed to the same degree of professionalism, predominantly written in English in the style of a newspaper to pass information to the reader with the minimum of fuss.

Complementing the paper-based output was last year's CD, A taste of Esperanto, featuring a short presentation by John Wells, excerpts from various radio stations, a lecture by Don Lord (included since it shows people laughing in real time at jokes made in Esperanto), and a song by Steven Thompson. I had actually obtained the rights to use original Esperanto music by six groups and show a 43-minute documentary, but unforeseen technical issues with adding English subtitles caused the printing deadline to be passed, more's the pity. Still, every cloud has a silver lining, and I hope to be able to build on that groundwork with extra material ready for next time.

The jewel in the crown was our video. I had secured the rights to use the aforementioned documentary Esperanto Estas, and had resolved the problem with adding subtitles in time for the show. Gavan Fantom then upped the ante by securing permission from the organisers of the event to make changes to our stall. He built a rig above head height from which he suspended a projector, meaning that we had the documentary playing all the time without a projector getting in the way. Esperanto Estas is quite simply the best publicity material that I'm aware of for Esperanto. The brainchild of a young Brazilian, Rogener Pavlinski, the film boasts footage from a range of Esperanto activities and events, presenting the language and its speakers. Young people from a broad array of countries give answers to various questions, and it helps Esperanto immensely that the documentary includes people from Japan and South Korea also chatting away freely, dispelling any doubt that the language is only really accessible for speakers of European languages. The masterstroke for me is the inclusion of out-takes at the end, where people react to bloopers as they would if they realised they'd just said something inadvertently funny or rude in their own languages. I quite heartily recommend that people interested in Esperanto take a few minutes to watch the six parts of the documentary online; it's humbling to see how well some creative and industrious people are promoting our language.

We added to this set-up one final piece: We ran a competition. Helen Fantom had the clever idea to buy a wheeled backpack that had an extendable handle and could also be used as hand luggage on an aeroplane, which we could offer as a competition prize. The question that had to be answered to win the holdall caused people to see how Esperanto works for themselves, so that even those with only a peripheral interest in the language would learn a little. It demonstrated step by step Esperanto's grammar-coding (where endings of words dictate the meaning of the root) and word-building through the appending of affixes, before asking them to indicate what they thought the word malsanulejo means. I added to the end that sometimes a recognisable international word sits alongside a constructed one, as is the case with hospital in this instance, which gave them a little more insight. The good news is that we obtained a series of responses, 36 of which indicated that they'd be happy for us to contact them in the future with information regarding Esperanto.

One final addition to our stand was actually unplanned, yet effective. Some of us were staying at the house of long-time Esperanto activist Grietje Buttinger's house in Tooting Bec, a charming lady who always makes us feel very welcome. As I ate breakfast and was about to head off one morning, she suggested that I use one of her guestbooks as a prop. All in all, Grietje has 3,800 entries in her guestbooks from people that used the pasporta servo to stop at her house for little or no cost over several decades. I was fearful of losing the book so hid it during the event, but it came out at opportune times to respond to queries about how people in the real world actually benefit from Esperanto. There was no instance at all were people weren't shocked to flick through this guestbook where home countries where included beside the names and photos and hear that over 3,000 Esperanto-speakers had visited London using the language.

Coming away from the show we reflected on a job well done. The three organisers had put a lot of time into making sure that we did Esperanto justice at the event. The addition of the documentary and competition struck me as particularly influential in grabbing people's attention, the bright and professional display made Esperanto look the equal of other languages, and I was proud at the efforts of all that were involved, especially those people who so generously gave of their time to man the stand. Joyce Bunting and Elizabeth Stanley were at their usual superlative standards, selling Esperanto by virtue of the niceness that characterises the pair of them; Katerina Fantom-Pigl was stupendous, her charm totally evident and her garrulousness meaning that there was a constant flow of spoken Esperanto within earshot; Clare Hunter, a newcomer to the Language Show, was an asset, speaking clearly and honestly, and providing accurate answers in just the sort of detail that the listeners wanted to hear. I'm very grateful to them for making the event what it was.

We don't have the budget to compete with the school from Salamanca next to us, which rented a series of stands at a cost of several thousand pounds, had a massive plasma TV, and flew in about ten staff to work the show. What we had was industriousness, innovation, and hard work. Whether we gain any new members because of our exploits is not for me to say. If we don't, it won't be through lack of effort from anyone involved in this year's Language Show. I commend the efforts of my two fellow organisers, and applaud our volunteers, and I'm sure that any EAB member who visited the show would have to agree.

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