Learning a language in Hungary

That is a very difficult proposition. The teaching of foreign languages in Hungarian schools is bad. Very, very bad. As far back as I can remember it was bad. Although my father in the early part of the twentieth century managed to learn German and French quite well in gymnasium, by the time I got to gymnasium it was a hopeless proposition.

Let me recount my own tortuous linguistic journey. Aside from being enrolled in a so-called German-language kindergarten where we learned no German whatsoever, I started studying French in grade five. You may recall from my earlier blog on Hungarian education that after World War II there was a school reform that established an 8 + 4 system instead of a 4 + 8 model. The school I attended was previously a gymnasium, so what we learned were the same subjects that first year students take in gymnasium. I started learning French because my family had had enough of the Germans by that time, but the favorite foreign language was still German. Although the parochial school I attended was run by a French order (Notre Dame), out of the four parallel classes they taught German in three and French in only one. Our French teacher by Hungarian standards wasn't even half bad. The fact that she was a nun stood her in good stead in mastering a foreign language. Because she majored in French she was sent by the order to a French university for a couple of years. So she could at least speak the language tolerably well. However, the class focused on reading and writing, with virtually no conversation. As an aside, our teacher taught us famous French folk songs; not surprisingly the lyrics stuck in my mind for years on end, even after my French studies were rudely interrupted by the introduction of Russian in grade eight. So after three years of French I switched to Russian.

That was an interesting experience. I don't think our teacher knew more Russian than we did. I.e. zero. She was at best a couple of lessons ahead of us. Not surprisingly we learned practically nothing by the end of the year. But in one respect it wasn't a waste because after finishing the eighth grade and moving on to the first year of gymnasium we started Russian again from scratch. From the same book! The reason we had to start again was because in our class there were students who had attended schools that hadn't introduced Russian the previous year.

In Hungary there were practically no teachers proficient in Russian. My new teacher in the gymnasium used to teach German and French, and I believe that she was more or less fluent in both since she studied in Vienna and Paris. But neither German nor French was taught anywhere and she had to make a living. Therefore, she started learning Russian. Again, she couldn't have been more than a year ahead of us, assuming that she learned something in the year that we learned nothing. Once again, it was book learning. We couldn't utter a sentence in Russian. Or rather, we had to memorize elevating sentences about the life of Pushkin and his wet nurse from whom he learned to speak Russian so beautifully! Came the Hungarian revolution and we couldn't exchange a word with the Russian soldiers. We couldn't explain what on earth was going on in Budapest. Although, as I mentioned earlier, two years of Russian were compulsory even in college. I don't quite remember how many hours of Russian instruction we received but we were on a downward linguistic slope; we started forgetting even the little Russian we knew in high school. End of my story. Consider it a minor miracle that you're reading an English-language blog written by someone who knew not a word of English when she left Hungary and whose sole language, years of study to the contrary, was Hungarian.

Language teaching didn't improve substantially in the Kádár regime. Foreign travel opportunities were severely limited and to study abroad was the privilege of the very few. The one impetus for at least some Hungarians to learn foreign languages was that the country was becoming a popular tourist destination. It was an advantage for people in the service sector to have a rudimentary knowledge of a foreign language.

With the change of regime Russian was no longer a compulsory language. So students rushed to English, German, and French classes. But who were their teachers? The former Russian teachers who tried to learn English, German, or French with the same poor results as the German and French teachers who had earlier tried to learn Russian. I remember visiting Hungary in 1993. My cousin, a school principal, announced that her school was very lucky to have an excellent young English teacher. I mentioned that I wouldn't mind sitting in to see what's going on in an English class in her school. I was told: no problem. She will talk to the young teacher. Well, it turned out that there was a problem: it was in mid-December, too close to Christmas, and my classroom visit wasn't convenient!

Today, aside from the lack of experienced teachers, the problem seems to be the same as in earlier times. Students don't learn to communicate in a foreign language; they can neither speak nor comprehend. They are in the same boat as the Hungarian students who were trying to converse with the Russian soldiers in 1956.

In 2005, according to the Eurobarometer's poll, 58% of Hungarians "spoke" no foreign language whatsoever–fifteen years after English, German and French were introduced into the curriculum. That's a tricky statistic to use for purposes of extrapolation. But more anecdotal evidence. Representatives of foreign companies complain that applicants for jobs that need the knowledge of a foreign language are often able to recite complicated grammatical rules even natives are unfamiliar with, but it is impossible to have a conversation with them and therefore they cannot be hired. One university president complained that out of the 1,000 potential graduates about 400 couldn't receive a degree last year because they couldn't pass the compulsory language exam. Apparently the textbooks still resemble my Russian textbook where we learned about Pushkin's life and his literary accomplishments and memorized Tatiana's letter to Onegin, but we couldn't ask for directions from a passerby.

Some people have tried to explain Hungarian deficiencies in learning a foreign language by pointing out that Hungarian is not an Indo-European language and therefore Hungarian speakers find it harder to learn a western language. This is hogwash. Finns manage; the percentage of Finns speaking one or two foreign languages is among the highest in Europe. Moreover, Hungarians find it easier to learn a western language than to learn Finnish whose grammatical structure is very similar to Hungarian. Some people claim that dubbing films and television series in Hungary impedes language learning. However, research shows that using subtitles can actually encourage and facilitate it. According to Eurobarometer that is the case in Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, countries with a very high percentage of people speaking foreign languages.

The ministry of education under Bálint Magyar has worked hard to overcome Hungary's foreign language gap. It introduced an optional extra year (essentially grade thirteen) devoted solely to learning a foreign language. And apparently textbooks are getting better, especially English ones. Currently about 80% of the students who enter ELTE have already passed at least one intermediate language exam. The preferred language is English. Eighteen percent of them have already passed exams in two languages, the second language most often being German. This is all very promising, but I don't know when Hungarians will get to the point that we can say with Nepomouk, the Hungarian interpreter in Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, that Eliza must be Hungarian and of noble blood for she speaks English “too perfectly.”

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Sophist
Guest

“The ministry of education under Bálint Magyar has worked hard to overcome Hungary’s foreign language gap…. Currently about 80% of the students who enter ELTE have already passed at least one intermediate language exam”
This has been largely achieved by breaking Rigó Utca’s monopoly. There are now many organisations offering accredited language certification. They compete by offering the easiest exam to pass, with the inevitable consequence that standards drop year on year.
Most international companies operating in Hungary now disregard language qualifications entirely and interview job applicants in the language(s) they claim they can use. The only thing that has been achieved in language education in the last nine years has been the transformation of language certification into another useless paper chase – they still facilitate university entrance.

Derron
Guest

It may just be in my experience, but many of the Hungarians I have met spoke impeccable English!

Hettie
Guest

“fifteen years after English, German and French were introduced into the curriculum.”
Eva, do you mean primary or secondary school curriculum? Or do you mean the introduction of a compulsory foreign language in primary/secondary education? Only asking because I started English in primary 3 during the mid 80’s.
I understand that you are frustrated (it definitely comes through your writing style) but a little less anecdotal and more hard evidence would be in order. Other bloggers warn their readers when they feel like ranting (which is absolutely fine, I do it on my blog, too).

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That’s awesome. I’m so glad you started blogging and that I can call you my friend. Keep posting and I’ll keep reading.

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I have tried many time to find someone who will teach me Hungarian. I once tried to sign up for a language school to do this but the class and later the school ‘folded’. Perhaps it is my fault for living out here in the boondocks.

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In the U.S. our foreign languages is not that great either. It used to be worse. I think it has actually improved over the years. But I really think they need to begin teaching real basic foreign language in elementary school.

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In our country it would be helpful to learn Spanish. Unfortunately I don’t have the time. It would be a great benefit to my business though.

John Moxford
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Learning Hungarian is very easy, try for yourself.

Jim
Guest

Agree — Hungarian is so regular, it is one of the few languages around that can actually be learned from a book, in the sense that it does not require a lot of explanation.
That said, learning any language is a long process with its stretches of suffering.

Soft Cialis
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What’s the best hungary university for studying Medicine ?? and do I have to study hungary language ?
I need a university which I can study Medicine with English and not with any other language !!!
any other info about education there would be nice and I’ll be grateful….

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i like this part of the blog:”That was an interesting experience. I don’t think our teacher knew more Russian than we did. I.e. zero. She was at best a couple of lessons ahead of us. Not surprisingly we learned practically nothing by the end of the year. But in one respect it wasn’t a waste because after finishing the eighth grade and moving on to the first year of gymnasium we started Russian again from scratch. From the same book! The reason we had to start again was because in our class there were students who had attended schools that hadn’t introduced Russian the previous year.” is very good

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In Hungary there were practically no teachers proficient in Russian.wow…sadly!!!!

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I use to hear it on my mom when i was kid. Now i believe she’s right.

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