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A Brief History of ESF

Esperantic Studies Foundation has a long and distinguished history. From the germ of an idea mooted by three of the founders together at Harvard University, the Foundation has developed and expanded substantially, becoming increasingly recognized as a significant source of support and leadership for research and scholarly activity in the field of interlinguistics. Moreover there is a rising recognition of the serious contribution made to the field by ESF-supported projects.



Prof Humphrey Tonkin, Co-founder and President, ESF

A Brief History of ESF from its foundation in 1968 to the present day
Early beginnings

The Esperantic Studies Foundation (ESF) was Founded on September 23rd 1968 by Dr. Humphrey Tonkin (a humanities scholar at the University of Pennsylvania with strong interests in international education), Dr. Jonathan Pool (a political scientist at the University of Washington interested in language issues) and Dr. E. James Lieberman (a psychiatrist at George Washington University with a strong interest in linguistic communication). The Foundation was conceived as a vehicle for promoting scholarly research and dialogue on issues concerned with world language problems and policies, including the planned international language Esperanto. The idea of establishing such a foundation dated from the time when all three of the founders were at Harvard University in various capacities.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, ESF focused primarily on Esperanto education and research initiatives in North America. In 1972, it published—in collaboration with the School for International Training (SIT) in Vermont—a Basic Esperanto Course. It also produced a series of research bibliographies entitled Esperanto and International Language Problems, edited by Dr. Humphrey Tonkin. In 1986 it sponsored the participation in the World Esperanto Congress in Beijing of a leading U.S. journalist, James Fallows, and a noted specialist in creole linguistics, Albert Valdman.

... and into the 1990s

In the early 1990s, ESF began to expand its activities. Anthropologist Dr. David Jordan (UCSD) joined the Board, and in 1991 the Foundation published the first issue of its newsletter, Esperantic Studies. The following year saw the release of Esperanto and Education: Toward a Research Agenda. This report, prepared by Dr. Alvino Fantini (School for International Training) and Dr. Timothy Reagan (Central Connecticut State University), sought to identify areas of concern relevant to Esperanto education and opportunities for future research. In 1995, ESF established an Advisory Board comprised of experts in such fields as linguistics, language policy and planning, and Esperanto. This year also marked the launch of the Foundation’s first website.

In 1996, the first Nitobe Symposium was held in Prague, with the topic Towards Linguistic Democracy. The Nitobe Symposia, named after the noted internationalist and deputy secretary-general of the League of Nations Nitobe Inazo, are held every few years and bring together scholars and practitioners from around the world to discuss issues of language. Subsequent symposia took place in Berlin (1999, Globalization and Linguistic Diversity), Beijing (2004, Language Problems in International Relations), Vilnius, Lithuania (2005, Language Policy and European Union Expansion), Tokyo (2007, European Languages and Asian Nations – History, Politics, Possibilities), Reykjavik, Iceland (2013, Implications of English as Language of University Instruction), and Lisbon, Portugal (2018, Teaching and Research on Esperanto). ESF has been a major supporter of the Nitobe symposia. In 2008 it also convened and supported a conference on the teaching of Esperanto and Interlinguistics in universities, held at the University of Amsterdam.

In 1999, ESF received a bequest of approximately $3 million from two prominent US Esperantists, Catherine and William Schulze, whose activities had included the long-running Esperanto program at San Francisco State University (later renamed NASK – Nord-Amerika Somera Kursaro). With this generous gift, ESF was able to lay the groundwork for an ambitious research and education agenda (program). NASK continued to prosper, moving to various North American universities from year to year, most recently William Peace University in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Later that year, Dr. Mark Fettes (Simon Fraser University, Vancouver) became ESF’s first Executive Director, a position later occupied by Dr. Timothy Reagan and currently by Joel Amis (see below). The Foundation established its Interlingual Research Grant Program. Under this program, scholars can apply for grants to pursue research on topics that fall within the field of interlinguistics. Also this year, ESF funded the completion of the 12 lesson Esperanto course Pasporto al la Tuta Mondo.

ESF at the turn of the twenty-first century

In 2001, Dr. Grant Goodall (a linguistics scholar at University of California San Diego) joined the board and, later that year, ESF funded the Phase I development of the innovative Esperanto teaching resource website This unique resource has continued to be developed and managed by Dr. Katalin Kovats.

Education continued as a major priority. Ongoing support was provided, and continues to be provided, for scholarships in the Interlinguistics Studies program at the Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland – the only such program in operation at a major university.

In 2003, one of ESF’s original founders, Dr. James Lieberman, retired after 34 years of dedicated service to the ESF board. Dr. Jonathan Pool also left the board at about this same time. Both, however, remain in close contact with the Foundation. In 2002, Dr. Ian Richmond, a French-language scholar with strong interests in international communication, joined the board, and, as the years passed, additional members joined or left the board, in most cases moving to the advisory board and staying in contact with the Foundation. They included Dr. Bonnie Fonseca-Greber, a French language and international communication scholar from the University of Louisville, businessman and former school principal Wallace Du Temple, specialist in computer-assisted language learning Derek Roff, professor of classics and Byzantine studies Dr. Geoffrey Greatrex, financial specialist Anna Bennett, and engineer Chuck Mays who has since taken on the role of Executive Director.

The year 2003 saw ESF fund another of its core educational programs: the website and online community. is a leading-edge language learning technology platform. Visitors to the website are able to learn Esperanto at their own pace in a rich multimedia environment and at no cost. The site has undergone continuous enhancements under the direction of Sonja Petrović and an expert team of technologists. At its annual retreat in 2011, the ESF Board announced a bold new phase of investment in the redesign and expansion of, with a view to integrate new services into the Lernu online community which has developed since the website’s creation. In 2012 Erin Piateski was named director of this new initiative.

A notable research project launched in 2003 was the Esperanto Text Corpus (Tekstaro). ESF commissioned noted Esperanto grammarian Bertil Wennergren to create the corpus. It is available to researchers online.

Dr. Timothy Reagan, long-time ESF collaborator and at the time Professor of Educational Leadership at Central Connecticut State University, joined the board in 2004 and is now a member of ESF’s advisory board. In 2004 ESF began sponsoring an annual award for an outstanding language-learning website, open to any and all languages. Inspired by the success of Lernu!, the award went on to become a fixture at CALICO, the major North American conference on computer-assisted learning, and continues to this day.

In 2005, the Foundation established a Post-Doctoral Research Support Program with the Center for Comparative Literature at Columbia University. This program ran for a number of years. ESF has since provided several research grants to Columbia post-doctoral researchers who have pursued interlinguistics-related projects.

In 2006, the Foundation provided the Centre for Research and Documentation on World Language Problems (CED – based in Rotterdam) with money to establish the Interlinguistics Support Fund, a program of small grants for scholars working in the field of Esperanto and interlinguistics. A CED-appointed committee reviews the proposals and generally makes four or five awards each year to support the publication of books, articles and research projects, and to assist scholars in travel to libraries and conferences. This program continues to operate under a three-person review and selection committee and has made dozens of grants over the years, many of them resulting in new books or research tools available to scholars.

The year 2006 also saw ESF’s first grant for a documentary film, awarded to director Sam Green. The film appeared in two versions. Utopia in Four Movements, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and the second, The Universal Language, was shown at the World Esperanto Congress in 2011 and has been well received.

Over the years, the Foundation has made numbers of grants to libraries, particularly the Hector Hodler Library at the Universal Esperanto Association office in Rotterdam, and it has assisted in the distribution of books to research libraries, including Ito Kanzi’s multiple-volume edition of the works of Zamenhof, the founder of Esperanto, and, more recently, the History of Esperanto Literature by Carlo Minnaja and Giorgio Silfer. The Foundation also provides an award presented at the annual CALICO Conference to the best language learning online resources (Computer-Assisted Language Instruction Consortium).

The 5th Nitobe Symposium took place in August 2007 in Tokyo with funding form ESF

Particularly noteworthy during the course of 2008 was the rising recognition of ESF-supported projects and of the foundation generally. Of the six annual awards given out by the Universal Esperanto Association this year, five were linked in one way or another to ESF. ESF also provided several grants this year, including a grant to the Centre for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University to support the residency of the Afrikaans poet Antjie Krog, Other projects supported by ESF came to fruition this year including work on the emergence of the Esperanto Movement in Japan (Dr Sho Konishi), and work on interpretation at the International criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague (Dr Nancy Schweda Nicholson). An Operations Committe was established by the Board in 2008.

As of 2009, ESF has supported a new series of symposia at the United Nations in New York. There have been seven such symposia so far, the most recent in May 2018, on Promoting Multilingualism in International Organizations.

2010, ESF Golden Jubilee, and ... continuing

2010 saw ESF’s administrative operations moved from Vancouver to Montreal, with Joel Amis taking over as Administrative Director. In 2017, Chuck Mays took over from Joel Amis, and the administrative operations moved to Raleigh, North Carolina.

Decisions taken in 2010 allowed the Foundation to move in new directions in 2011 by making a significant investment in efforts to expand the web presence of Esperanto. ESF provided partial funding for a symposium at the University of Copenhagen on ‘Language Policy and Language Rights in Education and Scientific Communication’ organised by the International League of Esperanto Teachers. Amongst others, ESF also provided a grant in support of the translation project Wikitrans.

Mark Fettes, writing the President’s letter for the Annual report 2012, referred to the ongoing transformation of ESF as an organisation relying almost exclusively on invested income to fund external projects to one ‘actively engaged in outreach. Fundraising, and the development of its own long-term projects and user-communities’. No significant new research grants were awarded in 2012 but two long-standing projects reached a significant milestone. The publication of a 78-page booklet coming out of the Springboard to Languages Project, a five-year study of the effects of introducing Esperanto in selected primary schools in the UK (Ed. Angela Tellier), and French scholar Christian Lavarenne’s defence of his thesis. Both projects were supported by ESF.

In 2013 the Foundation was given a great boost through the bequest of over a half a million dollars from the estate of Brian Kaneen, a Vancouver Esperantist who shared with ESF a great interest in issues of language policy. This bequest will allow ESF to further expand research and initiatives in the area of language policy and language rights.

ESF continued its now traditional work in the areas of Esperanto and linguistic justice and its educational work with projects such as the online learning site Lernu!, the North American Summer Esperanto Institute (NASK),, and the interlinguistics programme at UAM throughout 2014, all of which are continuing to prove very popular. This year also saw ESF sponsor a successful high profile symposium in New York on language and equality organised by the Study Group on Language at the United Nations in co-operation with the Centre for Research and Documentation on World Language Problems and the University of Hartford.

In 2015 Humphrey Tonkin, co-founding member, returned as President of ESF which since founding days has developed substantially, becoming increasingly recognized as a significant source of support and leadership for research and scholarly activity in the field of interlinguistics. The topic for the Symposium in New York in 2015 was ‘Language and Exclusion’ and was sponsored, as before, by ESF. Papers form the 2014 symposium, underwritten by ESF, appeared as a special issue of Language Problems and Language Planning (2015, 39:3). ESF also sponsored a 10-day intensive course in Esperanto at Macaulay Honors College (New York), organised by Dr. Esther Schor. Film maker Sam Green produced a short film of the course.

2016 was a particularly busy year. In addition to the usual supportive activities, ESF provide finance for an internship at the New York Office of the Universal Esperanto Association. New York also hosted an ESF-supported symposium on language and development aimed at raising awareness of the UN and the importance of language equality for human development and human rights. Reseach-supported publications this year include the first comprehensive history of Esperanto literature, and a sociological study of UEA. Lernu! had a full relaunch this year, while celebrated its 15th anniversary. The Interliguistics Support Fund, administered on behalf of ESF by the Centre for Research and Documentation on World Language Problems, continued to provide small grants to scholars for publication, conferences and similar activities. The sudden and deeply regretted passing of Dr Detlev Blanke, who had helped establish CED some ten years previously and who was its administrator and chair at the time of his death dealt us all a severe blow. Humphrey Tonkin stepped in to Chair the fund’s selection committee which now comprises Jesper Jacobsen (France), Velimir Piskorec (Croatia), and Angela Tellier (UK). 2016 was also the year in which a public sries of lectures, the Tivadar Soras Lecture Series, was launched with Esther Schror as speaker. The series of lectures was made possible by a grant provided by the Soros family to ESF, and is sponsored by the Linguistics Programme at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York. The lecture series will feature six events and will continue through 2917.

In 2017 ESF took over responsibility for the publication of the quarterly bulletin Informilo por Interlingvistoj following the death of Dr. Detlev Blanke, and began publishing a parallel English-language edition, Information for Interlinguists. Dr Blanke, a board member of the ESF-supported Centre for Research and Documentation on World Language Problems (CRD) since 1974 had edited the bulletin for the previous 25 years.

2018 marked the fiftieth anniversary year of ESF – its golden jubilee in 2018! saw ESF appoint a new Director of Research to coordinate university affairs, Dr. Angela Tellier, as successor to Dr. Asya Pereltsvaig, who withdrew from that position in late 2017. Dr. Angela Tellier has the responsibility for making contact with university personnel and other specialists who are concerned with Esperanto and interlinguistics either as teachers or as researchers, not only in North America but throughout the world.

ESF, committed to supporting a broad range of interlingual research and educational initiatives throughout the world for over fifty years, continues to offer guidance and funding support. Tekstaro, an Esperanto language corpus (Bertilo Wennergren), has been supported over several years and in 2018 was given more funding to provide more detailed linguistic coding and tags to allow more detailed searches. The topic of the 2018 UN Symposium was ‘Multilingulaism in International Organisation and in International Cooperation’ with the keynote address given by Michele Gazzola.

In 2017 and 2018 ESF provided a grant to William Peace University, Raleigh, to support its global studies and political science majors and its foreign language programmes. In 2018 this support expanded to offer a course on World Language to include video presentations by leading linguists from around the world, drawn from ESF’s network of contacts. The course is scheduled for September 2019.

Dr E. James Lieberman, Co-founder, ESF





Dr. Jonathan Pool, Co-founder, ESF