Hungarians and foreign languages

In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion there is the famous scene when Eliza is introduced at an embassy reception and she passes her language test with flying colors. The guests try to figure out where is she coming from. According to one, she speaks exactly like Queen Victoria, according to another, she speaks like an old school mistress of hers of whom she was deadly afraid, and finally there is Nepommuck, a Hungarian student of Professor Higgins who speaks thirty-four languages. He decides that Eliza is actually Hungarian of "royal blood." When he is asked how he knew that, Nepommuck says that it is "instinct. Only the Magyar races can have that air of the divine right." And, of course, his excellent flair for languages.

Well, wouldn’t it be wonderful if this were actually true, but it’s not. There are some people who claim that for Hungarians it is more difficult to learn an Indo-European language. After all, Hungarian belongs to the Finno-Ugric language family. I didn’t believe this excuse even before I checked into the Finnish situation. In Finland the command of foreign languages is outstanding even by European standards. Seven-seventy percent of the population speaks one or more foreign languages as opposed to the European average of forty-four percent. (By the way, I had the misfortune of trying to learn Finnish for a year when I was a student of Hungarian language and literature; it was compulsory to learn Finnish for purposes of comparative linguistics. We sweated blood. We found it terribly difficult to learn Finnish which, by the way, was taught as if it were a dead language like Latin. The whole year was spent on preparing ourselves for translating a few lines from the Kalevala.)

The problem, I think, lies elsewhere. Perhaps first and foremost in the history of the country in the last fifty years or so. Until 1949 students began to learn German or French (almost never English) in grade five. I began learning French. We didn’t learn a lot although the teacher, a nun, spent some time before the war in a French convent. It is possible that she spoke good French; we certainly couldn’t tell. Then suddenly, out of the blue, all German and French teachers had to teach Russian. Never mind that they didn’t know the language and that they were only a couple of lessons ahead of us. That was in grade eight. Then came high school but since not all students had learned Russian the year before, we began Russian again. From the same book. To speak the language? What for? There was no one to speak Russian to, and one was even glad that that was the case. However, all of us learned by heart Tatiana’s letter to Onegin by Pushkin!

That wasn’t enough. There were two more years of compulsory Russian at the university, but it was on such a low level that the little I managed to learn in high school I succeeded in forgetting in college. Then came the Russians in October-November 1956 and not one of us was able to mutter out a sentence in Russian.

The situation didn’t improve much after 1956. Very, very few people ever managed to learn Russian. It was a language that didn’t serve much of a practical purpose. In addition, there was a psychological barrier preventing people from learning the language. Some better-off people, especially in Budapest, sent their children to private English lessons, but the situation was pretty grim throughout the Kádár period.

Then came the change of regime. Russian was no longer compulsory, almost nobody wanted to learn Russian, and there were thousands of Russian teachers who now had nothing to do. Or rather they had to switch to English, German, or French in order to have a job. Their knowledge of these languages was about as good as the former German and French teachers’ knowledge of Russian in 1949. The result is that the teaching of foreign languages in public schools is dismal. If parents want their children to actually learn a foreign language, they have to send them to private teachers. Apparently not an inexpensive proposition.

Currently, in order to gain entrance to university, a student must accumulate a certain number of points. The maximum is 480. Passing one of the official language examinations can earn a student extra points: 35 for a successful exam at the intermediate level and 50 at the advanced level. According to the latest information I have, unless a student has at least one foreign language examination behind him, he can forget about getting into college. Two language exams are even better. This practice discriminates greatly against poorer students or students who don’t live in the capital or larger cities.

According to the latest statistics, 45% of those between the ages of 15 and 45 don’t know any foreign language whatsoever. Of the rest only 5% have intermediate skills while another 5% are advanced, so the lion’s share of the balance can say "ja" and "nein" and, if they’re really sophisticated, "vielleicht." In comparison to the European average or the Finnish statistics, the situation in Hungary is dire. The youngest groups fare the best, of course, and as we get to the older folks the statistics get worse.  While 23% of the people in the age category between 20 and 24 have already passed a language test, the number drops to 9% in the 40 to 44 category.

And then comes the big question: if a person passes one of these language exams, does he actually speak the language? How well does he understand everyday conversations? A film? A play? A business transaction? These questions remain unanswered. One thing is sure: something must be done in a world without borders. People speaking a language understood by about thirteen million people in the world can’t afford to talk only among themselves. One idea that is being floated is a thirteenth year of schooling devoted completely to language studies. However, for that you would need good teachers–preferably native speakers who also have teaching experience. I am convinced that (at least for the linguistically challenged, such as yours truly) the best way to learn a foreign language is by total immersion. But how can that be achieved on a large scale? One possibility is TV. For instance, apparently in Finland, they don’t dub movies. If you want to watch a British movie you have to struggle with British English. Whom would you want to teach your child English? The local incompetent or Laurence Olivier? And just think about the range of vocabulary that would be possible by watching, let’s say, "The Philadelphia Story," "Trading Places," and "The Maltese Falcon." In brief, Turner Classic Movies for Hungarians wanting to learn English. And I’m sure there are comparable opportunities for other languages.

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Paul Hellyer

My experience in Hungary lead me to divide the population into three groups as regards a second language: the elderly, or whatever is the politically correct term for those over 65, who would speak German as a second language: the middle-aged, no second language but all the while proclaiming they had forgotten every single word of Russian ever taught them; and thirdly, the young who invariably spoke enough English to converse. A generalization I know, but there you go.
The only footnote I would add on the alleged difficulty of learning Hungarian as a second language, was that I was always surprised to hear the Chinese stallholders in the oddly-named “Polish markets” speak more than passable Hungarian. “Nagyon olcso”,[very cheap] they would call out and seemed more than able to drive a hard bargain among Hungarians who, invariably, could speak not a word of Mandarin.

Hungarian popular media spread the myth that allowing foreign language media such as films and TV with subtitles would cause Hungarians to somehow foregt their ability to speak Hungarian. In fact, there is a huge industry based on film and television overdubbing that subsidizes Hungarian theater, because various theaters are contracted to overdubbing studios. Thus, almost everything on MTV 1 seems to have been dubbed by the Miskolc Theater. The problem is also that this means you have stage-trained actors who are projecting their stage trained voices into tiny studio microphones, making for a hysterical “staged” sound on dubbed movies. All the voices are the same voices in all the other films. All the voices play on all the same local stereotypes (there is one mafia-tough-guy voice, one style of “girl” voice, one “cop” voice), making for extremely monotonous viewing. In Romania the TV subtitles everything, and the results are obvious. Younger folks generally speak better English and French, while I have met nearly illiterate peasant folk in villages who could converse in what they called “Argentinesti” (Spanish learned from Argentinian telenovela soap operas.) The situation is mirrored in Iberia, as well. Spain is fabulously monolingual – and popular media… Read more »

The Czechs also subtitle everything instead of dubbing. I believe Hungary followed the German model, where everything is (poorly) dubbed. In New York, so many waiters are actors waiting to be discovered. In Hungary, actors would rather starve than take a waitering job — instead, out of work Hungarian actors generally dub.