Rózsa Hoffmann and foreign languages

When I saw the headline "Higher education entrusted to Frankenstein" in Hírszerző (August 12), I was somewhat taken aback. Rózsa Hoffmann is not exactly one of my favorites, but I wouldn't call her a Frankenstein monster either. After I read the article written by Miklós Stemler, I realized that when he talks about Frankenstein he means the Christian Democratic Party because he considers the party "Viktor Orbán's Frankenstein project." (I know, in Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein was the creator of the monster, not the monster itself, but cut the author some slack. Can you imagine what would have happened if he had referred to the prime minister as Frankenstein?)

I wrote about the past and present of the Christian Democratic Party last year and emphasized many times since that the KDNP (Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt) is a party only in name. In 2005 Fidesz signed an agreement with the few politicians who still called themselves Christian Democrats and who agreed to run with Orbán's party on the same ticket. Given the lack of support of KDNP among the electorate it is fairly difficult to fathom why the Fidesz party leader considered such an alliance useful. However, in the last five or six years this non-party has formed a distinct parliamentary caucus currently with 37 members. Never mind that there were no 37 Christian Democrats to be found. A few Fidesz politicians were sent over to sit with the Christian Democrats. Rózsa Hoffmann, undersecretary of education, was among them.

The problem with Rózsa Hoffmann is not only that she has very old-fashioned ideas about education and, if it depended on her, the current generation would be learning exactly the same things that Hoffmann herself was learning as a teenager in the 1960s but that she and her team seem to be incapable of coming up with any coherent plan for the future of Hungarian education. It doesn't matter whether she is talking about elementary schools or universities, most of her ideas are half-baked.

Without trying to give a comprehensive list of these half-baked ideas here are a few examples. The first one I remember was the introduction of daily phys ed in all elementary schools. But for that one would need more than one gym within the school. Although most city schools have gyms by now, village schools most likely don't. And where will all those new gym teachers come from? The plan was modified and as far as I know daily phys ed will be compulsory only in the first four years. I wonder whether in practice it will simply mean that children will stand up and do some stretching exercises next to their desks.

Because Hoffmann was trained to become a language teacher (French and Russian) she often talks about the necessity of learning foreign languages. However, her ideas about ideal language teaching leave something to be desired. Most likely because she knows no English she has something against the language whose importance she considers overrated. During the tenure of SZDSZ minister of education Bálint Magyar, the ministry prescribed that English be taught if there was demand for it. One of the first things Hoffmann decided to get rid of was this ministerial "dictat". She would prefer French and Spanish regardless of the fact that English is still the most useful language.

Her latest idea on the foreign language front is the introduction of not one but two or three foreign languages. In grade five the child would start his or her first foreign language and after two years one more foreign language would be compulsory. So, between grades 7 and 12 the student would be simultaneously learning two foreign languages. Each for at most three or four hours a week. That's bad enough, but every child who is unfortunate enough to be enrolled at age 10 in a gymnasium will have to learn three languages over the course of eight years. If I remember correctly, the third language will be Latin as a compulsory subject.

And to add insult to injury she envisages that by 2014 no one will be able to enter university unless he/she passes a language test at the intermediate level. As things stand now, in order to graduate from college students must pass a language exam. Many of them are unable to obtain their diplomas because they cannot fulfill that requirement even by the end of their university studies.

It certainly would be desirable for Hungarian students to learn at least one foreign language before entering college. But as things stand, in most Hungarian schools language teaching is very poor and those who manage to pass the language exam do so with the help of one of the many privately owned language schools that give group or individual lessons. But that costs money, and only well-heeled parents can afford such a luxury. Thus, if Hoffmann manages to push through her plans about language exams as a prerequisite for entering college she will certainly achieve her not too concealed goal of having fewer university graduates. Not a long time ago she made it clear that only "outstanding students" should attend college.

Let's start with this last nonsensical pronouncement of Rózsa Hoffmann. I was lucky enough to teach at a university where there were a lot of very bright students. But there were only a handful whom we would consider truly outstanding or brilliant. What modern society needs is many well educated people who can work at different tasks with competence. Nowadays even a factory worker must be able to handle a computer.

Or, here is her crazy idea about learning two or three languages simultaneously. I would be glad if Hungarian students managed to handle one foreign language well. But surely one cannot learn a language spending three or four hours a week in a relatively large class with one teacher. I'm a firm believer in the "total immersion" method. This is how American soldiers selected specifically to learn foreign languages were taught at Monterey. The students couldn't utter a word in English and they were totally immersed in the foreign language environment. In a year they learned the chosen language extraordinarily well. I met several former Monterey students who learned Hungarian this way. Many of them ended up doing graduate work in Hungarian history or political science.

Bálint Magyar also seems to believe in "total immersion" because he came up with the idea of an extra year between matriculation and college which would be devoted entirely to learning a language. Weekly fifteen hours. Five hours every day Monday through Friday for a whole school year. Apparently the results, although the program was introduced in only a limited number of institutions, are encouraging.

Rózsa Hoffmann obviously doesn't share my enthusiasm for "total immersion" and in fact wants to abolish the extra year devoted to learning a foreign language in certain schools. I can assure Ms Hoffmann even before she has the chance to put her nonsensical idea of quantity over quality into practice that failure is guaranteed.

I have the feeling that this latest brainchild of Hoffmann will be dead on arrival. A couple of days ago Magyar Nemzet published a short article about "the strategy of teaching languages" that became public about a week ago. The newspaper inquired from experts what they thought of Ms Hoffmann's latest, and "one of the experts asked [by the paper] is convinced that the direction the undersecretary is taking is wrong…. The only result of learning two or three languages at the same time will be that the student will not learn any of them well." Another expert announced that "a country that doesn't first and foremost concentrate on English commits harakiri."

Rózsa Hoffmann came to her job wanting to change everything because last April there was "a revolution in the voting booths." Accordingly the rotten edifice the liberals and socialists had built must be razed and an entirely new system must take its place. But then Magyar Nemzet asks the experts on teaching foreign languages and behold their opinions coincide with the past years' practice. Destroying the old is rarely desirable. It is better to build on existing foundations.

I'm almost certain that Viktor Orbán would love to get rid of the incompetent Rózsa Hoffmann, but it is not that easy. The Christian Democratic caucus stands behind her and without the Christian Democratic vote there is no two-thirds. Perhaps Orbán by now is sorry that he ever signed that document with the non-existent KDNP in 2005 and allowed Zsolt Semjén, the chairman of the party, to form a separate parliamentary caucus. 

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Member
I have the feeling these poor turbo-Hungarians will shoot themselves in the foot with the foreign language mania. The whole idea that the young graduates are not competitive because they can’t communicate with foreigners is totally misguided. You have to motivate them to learn and they will. For one if they would stop fostering xenophobia, constantly telling kids that the foreigners are screwing us, that would help. Second, when people realize that it’s hard to to business with foreigners they will start learning like crazy. But for this they have to get them to try to do business. Teach entrepreneurship and make sure it’s easy to launch a business. My in-laws are farmers on the east side of the country (Bekes county). When they realized that there’s good money in growing specialty corn for German buyers they picked up German in a “blitz”. But the real shooting in the foot part is this: whoever manages to learn something in this system and snag a diploma in a marketable trade will take to first westbound train and say “Au revoir” or “Hasta Luego” in the honor of our Rosy the educational riveter. You can’t really force language education without motivation. The… Read more »
GW
Guest
I don’t think there is anything wrong with learning more than one foreign language at once — in German gymnasiums, it’s done very well, and in Flanders ever better — but the assumption that it be a requirement for every student is misguided. One size doesn’t always fit all. Not all students should go to a gymnasium and not all students have a gift for languages (and when they are talented in other areas they shouldn’t be penalized for their language deficits). For the economic (and intellectual/cultural) security of Hungary, a balance has to be struck between mass instruction in a foreign language with worldwide status (i.e. English) and coverage of the languages of Hungary’s neighbors and partners. My impression is that within Budapest, training is done in a sufficient variety of languages as first- and second-foreign languages, but across the country, it is rather hit and miss. The greater problem with language learning in Hungary is, however, the pedagogical style. It continues to emphasize reading over speaking and rote memorization over extemporaneous linguistic performance. A shortage of native speaker teachers and teachers with idiomatic command of foreign languages plagues the system. The quasi-official exam system in languages is a… Read more »
Domarb65
Guest

One potential solution is to reduce the amount of dubbing on Hungarian television. Children pick up the intonation of foreign languages and learn effortlessly, even from cartoons. This is confirmed by Hungarians brought up in Romania or Serbia who speak better English from only watching sub-titled TV. It should also improve reading skills. I feel, though, that the dubbing industry is a powerful lobby in Hungary so change is unlikely

Istvan Ertl
Guest

Here’s a balanced opinion from the weekly HVG:
http://hvg.hu/hvgfriss/2011.32/201132_vizsgakerdesek
Teaching German first might not be a bad idea, after all. Personally, I would prefer Esperanto as an introduction tool to foreign languages in general (it lowers wonderfully the language threshold for us non-Indo-Europeans), but, under current circumstances, that would be even more utopian than any of the Tales of Hoffmann.

blondé
Guest

GW- language teaching in bilingual/minority schools is indeed quite specific and even the national language strategy from 2003 recognized that there is a huge potential there that could be used to further and enhance the learning of the foreign languages in state education system on national level, and that such schools should be popularized and promoted even for monolingual majority children.
However,since madam Hoffman’s comment, when she was informed that there are in fact several minority schools in Hungary in which Hungarian is not the teaching language, went along the lines of ” What? We have schools like that here? We must close them!”, I doubt that she or her staff would be willing to recognize, catalog, adjust and apply the highly successful teaching methods and approaches that enable minority students from such schools to excel at language learning in at least three languages- their mother tongue, Hungarian and a at least one other foreign language of choice in grades 1-10.

Guest

Mutt, your experience with Russian reminds me:
I lived in the “French Occupied Zone” in Germany and had to learn French as a first foreign language at the gymnasium. After 9 years of reading Molière and Rousseau I couldn’t read a menue in French when I went on my first holiday there – and I couldn’t hold a conversation in French …
Of course things have changed since then.
Now for the good news: Most of the young Hungarians I meet speak quite good English – often they learned it later because they are interested in computers and modern technology generally.
A funny story: My wife’s son always mixes he and she, his and hers etc, although he really speaks good English.
He told me that his teacher (who had been a Russian teacher before) thought that this distinction was too complicated for the children and not necessary …

Paul
Guest

I bet I’m the only one who laughed at this article! (No disrespect to Éva, of course.)
One of the ‘oddities’ of Hungarian culture to me (as a Brit with very little exposure to other cultures before meeting my wife) was the use of the term ‘gimnázium’ for some schools.
I now I discover that some schools don’t have a gymnasium. But I take it all gimnáziums have gymasiums?!
Ah well, I guess you have to me to find any of this funny…
And, yes, I am aware of the origin of the name!

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Domarb65: “One potential solution is to reduce the amount of dubbing on Hungarian television. ”
One of the experts Magyar Nemzet asked in connection with language teaching talked about this and he is not the first one who is against dubbing. Domarb65 is right, the actors whose livelihood is precarious can get extra money by being the Hungarian voice of this or that foreign actor and therefore the lobby is indeed quite strong in defense of dubbing.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Yesterday I forgot to include another good headline about Rose (Rózsa). “The rose has withered but cannot be thrown out.” In connection, of course, with the two-thirds majority and the need for KDNP votes.

Member

Really, what to expect from Ms Hoffman when the strongest “qualification” on her credential is that she is a member of a cetain party. I mean, we really have to believe that there are no better fitted professionals for this position in the country then Ms Hoffman? DId any of you visited her website lately? You should read the headlines there. lol Also, here is a very interesting piece: “http://www.euractiv.com/en/priorities/hungarys-2020-education-targets-unrealistic-news-496531

Paul
Guest

Several comments on this:
KDNP:
I really don’t understand the whole KDNP thing. They are a minor party who previously failed to get any MPs elected, yet they now have almost as many sitting in parliament as Jobbik or MSzP. None of these MPs were voted for, none of them have a mandate from the electorate. And yet, not only are they there, but they seem to weild power out of all proportion to their number.
What sort of a democracy is this, even by OV’s distorted understanding of the word?
And why does OV bother with the KDNP to start with? He certainly doesn’t need them. Was he so thrown by losing in 2002 on 2006 that he was clutching any straw he could find, and thought a tie-up with the religious zealots would give him a few extra votes that might just make a difference?
Or has he gone through some sort of mid-life religious conversion whereby he now sees it as one of his duties whilst ‘saving’ Hungary to ensure power for religious nutters?
Or is it something more sinister – have KDNP got some sort of mysterious hold over OV?

Paul
Guest
This is in danger of becoming a marathon post, so I’ll do it JB style: Phys Ed for kids: This has always been compulsary in the UK, although only an hour or two a week (I think). I hated it as a kid, but I now think it’s a very good idea, in fact I think a brief session of PE every day would be a good idea (perhaps after lunch, or mid-afternoon?). Studies show that kids learn better following exercise and, with the complete lack of excercise many kids in the UK get these days, PE could be the only time they do more than move from the settee to the PC. And, Hungary beware, the Fat Kids are coming! 10 years ago, you never saw fat kids on the streets of Hungary, but in the last few years they’ve started to appear, and their numbers are growing. The Hungarian diet already kills most men 5 or 10 years early, God alone knows what it will do for them if they start life being fat. As for the need for gyms – in the UK, all schools have at least one hall, which is used for assemblies, exams, lunch,… Read more »
Member

“often they learned it later because they are interested in computers and modern technology generally.”
.. and pop music.
Yeah, we don’t need Hoffman. Bill Gates and John Lennon contribute more to teaching English. Sad.

GW
Guest

Paul,
the annexation of the KDNP had a couple of advantages for Fidesz: they could use it to boost their new anti-liberal bona fides, they could give off the veneer to the rest of Europe that they were a conventional Christian Democratic party, they could increase plausible deniability for unpopular legislation or policies by having KDNP MPs or cabinet members introduce them (or by depositing problematic MPs into the KDNP caucus), and they could increase their representation in parliamentary committees and they could get increased monetary support for parliamentary “party” leaders and their offices. I strongly believe in the “follow the money” principle, so I suspect the last rationale trumps the others, but all-in-all, this was a smart package for Fidesz and should scandalize any real conservatives out there.

Paul
Guest

GW – a wait with breath suitably bated for JB’s comments on this.

chayenne
Guest
oookay, I have a lot to say to this, but am short of time, so just one thing: I happen to be an English teacher at one of the biggest and oldest language schools in Budapest. Now, last year (including the summer and the autumn term) we were scraping the bottom of the barrel, so to say, financially, because there were barely a handful of students haunting the school. The crisis, we nodded knowingly. And then suddenly this term (spring) people started turning up in droves. Literally. We had difficulty accomodating them. There were students sitting in the broom closet. I’m not kidding. And I just couldn’t believe that this should be the first proof of the crisis ending, because people ‘are’ living worse than a year ago thanks to the present government and there’s no end in sight for the crisis. So I have this theory. A lot of people have decided to tighten their belts and somehow find the money to go to a language course and learn English (I’m talking about English courses here mostly)so that they could get the hell out of this country. That’s my theory. It has suddenly become first priority for quite a… Read more »
Member

DId you know that in 2001 the government is spending $8,000,000 forints (over 29,000 Euros) on weekly twice two hours English classes for our government officials? THis raises a few question: We heard before that it is not important that our government officials speak an other language in the EU as Hungry is an official language and we heard that English is not as important as German in Hungary. Also, why exactly taxpayers paying for this? If this is a qualification that our officials need maybe they should pay for themselves. Are they taking the lessons after work or instead of work? I also did not read about any Hungarian grammar lessons being paid for but “you know who” could certainly use that in order to be able to communicate with Hungarians. Now that would be money well spent.

Member

Here is how the language education works.
http://bit.ly/qddsTN
Sziget Festival 2011
hvg.hu (c) Akos Stiller

Guest

When I first heard of OV’s drastic plans, I thought the first thing that has to go is the teaching of foreign languages–to keep the people at home. Chayenne’s post prooves this!

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Chayenne is most likely right when he suspects that a lot of people are putting more effort into learning a language because they are thinking of leaving Hungary and work elsewhere in one of the EU countries or even farther away. In today’s Népszabadság there is an interesting piece about that with a sociologist who specializes in the study of the younger generation. Worth reading:
http://nol.hu/belfold/_az_elkoltozo_fiatalok_helyere_nem_jon_senki_

Odin's lost eye
Guest

If things go the way I think they will, then the problems of education will cease.
The ‘proles’ (hoi poloi) will be educated to a basic level (the highest rank they will ever achieve will be ‘Dung Shoveler’s mate’ (2nd class). Engineers, Artificers and the like will all be Chinese.
For the children of the ’oligarchs’ it will be different. They will have a superb education from the pre-school to their doctorate, with excellent teachers, wonderful schools and the best of the best. Providing their parents have not been purged by Mr Sándor Pintér and his merry men.
Some of the children from the proles will be chosen (if they have enough money/property to buy the influence needed) will enter a second stream and become professionals (doctors, dentists, accountants etc)

chayenne
Guest
From a language teacher’s perspective I’d say, it is ridiculous how easy it is for a German for example to learn English. It’s not just a matter of teaching methods. It’s the similarity between these languages. Hungarian and English are just worlds apart. I agree that teenagers today practically inhale English through the net and pop music…etc. But again, it only applies to those whose abilities are better than average. The vast majority of Hungarians is just not talented in languages. That’s why I think it absolutely unfair that you can’t get a degree unless you have an intermediate language exam, in certain cases they put one on it and make it a specialised exam and that’s not a walk in the park. It’s not just a serious challenge for a great many people, but in many cases an unsurmountable problem. The abilities requierd to learn a language are totally different from any other skills and so the language exam should not be made a prerequisite for a degree. I’ve met really clever people who came to me for private lessons because their degree had been pending for years. They gave their best – and yet it remained an uphill… Read more »
Wondercat
Guest

And where is instruction in Chinese going to fit in? Who will speak, and in what language, with the new economic overlords?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Chayenne: I agree with almost everything you said except that “The vast majority of Hungarians is just not talented in languages.”
Plus, you mention that Hungarian and English are a world apart and therefore….
First, let’s bring up the Finns. The structure of their language is very similar to Hungarian and very far from Indo-European languages in general. Yet, 71% of Finns speak a foreign language.
Second, Hungarians who left Hungary and settled in different western countries managed to learn English or French or German very nicely.
Third, I speak and write English quite well although I’m not particularly good at learning languages. I bet that your problem students would learn English in no time if they had no choice. You either learn the language or you will wash dishes, if you are lucky, for the rest of your life. In such situation the least linguistically gifted will be a star student!

Member
Chayenne, I tend agree with Eva. You go a bit too easy on our compatriots. Picking up basic English is very easy. I’d say laziness, lack of motivation and yes the quality of teaching are the main reasons. But whatever the reasons are it is unfair to demand a language exam. You need it, you learn it. During college in Budapest, I made money teaching math to lazy rich kids. Rich kids in the 80s BP meant kids of dentists. For one semester I gave my earnings to a private English teacher, got the exam in 4 months and because of this I was exempted from the official boring English classes in college (I liked the teacher though, she was hot). Wala! Here I am, still using the same 400 words, living in the US for 15 years. Later I learned French when I lived in France. Dead easy after English. Speaking I mean, I still cannot write a word. German was hard. The strict order of words was killing me. The most important things you only hear at the end of the sentences. It’s funny watching German synchronous translators when their guys are still saying something but the translator… Read more »
peter litvanyi
Guest

Dear “Odin’s”:
re “If things go the way I think they will, then the problems of education will cease…..” 100% agreed. The point indeed.
Dear “Mutt”:
re ” There was a funny Russian test when I was in college..” -maybe the two of us should have a nice class reunion, loved the semiconductor thing; is it true?
Dear eveyone else here /Eva, Some 1, Wondercat, Wolfi, Paul etc./:
I have come across two very important books this weekend:
-Naomi Klein : The Shock Doctrine /Metropolitan Books, Henry Holtz and Company/. It sort of puts things into a perspective.
For those who read fiction:
-Abraham Verghese: Cutting for Stone /Random House/
Sincerely:
Peter Litvanyi

chayenne
Guest
Okay, I may go too easy on my fellow countrymen, but as I said I speak from experience and I have been teaching for about 8 years now. There’s one thing though. I have discovered that Hungarians tend to have a kind of distorted idea about language teaching and this may not be entirely their fault, but of this internationally favoured teaching method everybody is applying now. I don’t necessarily think it’s bad, and I understand that coursebooks are designed for an international audience (that is, they can be used with the similar results from Uganda to Argentina)but as I see it, this approach does not suit Hungarian students too well. It just does not work with them most of the time. Also, it gives the imression that learning a language is kind of effortless. That it’s totally different from learning any other subject in terms of how much effort you have to put in to get results. In a sense it really is different, but it’s not true that it’s enough to just take part in the lessons and the language simply worms its way into your head. No, you have to sit down and learn it and revise… Read more »
Odin's lost eye
Guest
One of the big problems a Hungarian has with learning any of the Indo-European languages (and vice-versa) is that the student has to learn to think in a different way. The language structure constrains the way in which one thinks. For example Hungarian has no possessive case your things are ‘part of you. My late wife would always say “I make this to you” as she was thinking in Hungarian way. I always have a problem as there is no way, in Hungarian, that I can describe the passage of time (the continuous cases). For example “I was eating my lunch when you called”. In my mind it conjurors up a picture of someone who started eating their lunch sometime before the interruption and was still doing it at the time of the interruption. I might well go on eating it after the interruption is ended. The other problems and restrictions for me are the way in which a Hungarian thinks and the lack of the descriptive verb. In its basic form English is an easy language to learn, but it has its irregularities and other quirks. I have a friend who is a translator and sometimes she asks me… Read more »
MM
Guest

I don’t see why it should be difficult for young kids to learn several languages at the same time. As others have said, this is standard practice in many European countries. No matter how different Hungarian is from English or German, children pick up languages easier than adults. And if you learn one, it will be easier to learn another. There is nothing wrong with the plan in principle, though following more than one language through the entire school career is overdoing it a bit. At least one language should be obligatory, though. I think the idea to make a foreign language an obligatory prerequisite for any university course is a very good one. Even in the sciences people need to communicate in English. These decisions will make Hungary less insular and more outward looking, so I applaud them in principle, even if the details still leave something to be desired.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

MM: “These decisions will make Hungary less insular and more outward looking, so I applaud them in principle, even if the details still leave something to be desired.”
Principle is one thing and practice something else. It simply cannot be implemented in Hungary at the moment. Moreover, there are several weighty objections against it. Three hours a week spent on one language and another three on another will lead absolutely nowhere. Believe me.

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