Learning that very easy English language: Personal experiences

When someone of authority says a very stupid thing, the news immediately travels far and wide given our globalized world. The remark that appeared in a proposal to "revamp" Hungarian education is by now in The Wall Street Journal in that super-easy English language that doesn't take much effort to learn, at least in the initial phases.

While I was copying over my old articles to save them for the time when Hungarian Spectrum moves to a more robust site, I came across one entitled "Learning a language in Hungary." It was about my own trials and tribulations trying to learn a foreign language in Hungary. If you want to have a good laugh, read it.

Here I would like to continue the story about what happened once I left Hungary and had to learn English, the supposedly super easy language. If Rózsa Hoffmann's staff reads my blog, which of course I very much doubt, those "learned" ladies and gentlemen who are busying themselves with all sorts of nonsensical proposals might learn a thing or two from someone else's real-life experiences.

From my first article on the subject it is clear that when I left Hungary I didn't speak any of the languages I had studied. After arriving in Montreal, there was a certain competition between French and English Canadian academic circles to acquire the more promising Hungarian students. The French were the first to look over the candidates, and I was part of the group chosen to proceed to Montreal. We were housed in a former convent. The teacher they hired was a French Canadian who in the morning taught French and in the afternoon English. I became somewhat suspicious about the efficacy of all that when the gentleman made us pronounce initial h's over and over–a well known problem for French speakers but not for Hungarians. Since I wanted to learn English and not French I decided to move on to the English colony that handled Hungarian students.

In the English camp language teaching was even more  primitive than at Rue Saint-Antoine, and thus I was pleased to be able to move on with 24 other Hungarian students to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. The university hired a high school teacher who had no experience whatsoever teaching English as a foreign language. Moreover, all twenty-five of us were herded into one classroom. There was no opportunity to do more than repeat individual words after the teacher. In plain English, it was useless.

We were supposed to find a day job and attend English classes in the evenings. Finding a job certainly wasn't easy, but I managed to find a job working in a restaurant at the golf course. But there was a problem: I was supposed to wait tables in the evening. Thus, I couldn't have attended the classes. I went to the professor who was in charge of the Hungarian students and in very broken English told him about my predicament. The verdict was: no, I can't take that job. I must attend the high school teacher's totally useless classes. Stupidly, I obliged. Today, of course, I know that I would have learned fifty times more English in the restaurant than in the classroom.

After this so-called "formal" language training there was no more opportunity, even if I had wanted it, to attend any kind of class. We were on our own. And perhaps that was the very best form of learning. Eight months after our arrival I landed an office job at the Canadian Library Association in Ottawa where I learned more English from my fellow workers in one month than I had in the previous eight. A young woman, only a few years older than I, took me under her wing and in the early days on the job when I didn't understand the word "apologize," she suggested that I bring an English-Hungarian dictionary to work which she kept on her desk. About a week later she pretty well forced me to phone a company to pick up some parcels from the office. I was petrified. But she told me what to say and, behold, the people at the other end understood me: in due course someone appeared to pick up our parcels.

Slowly but surely I felt more and more confident, but the real test came when a year and a half after my arrival I decided to try my luck at taking an evening course at the local university. After a lot of bureaucratic hassles they finally believed that I had a bona fide matriculation certificate. The man at the university in charge of the curriculum must have been a sadist. He suggested that I take as my first course English 100–English Literature from Chaucer to Eliot.

I duly enrolled in English 100 and didn't understand one single word from the first lecture. So, I decided to let the lecturer know that I was there. I will never forget his reaction: "Are you enrolled in this class? Oh, my Lord!" It turned out that in the class there was another Hungarian called Ferenc/Frank. This was his second attempt at learning something about Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Austen, and Eliot, just to mention a few of the authors we studied that year. He failed the first time around and was back for a second try.

Frank was far from stupid, but when we couldn't understand even the introduction to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written of course in modern English, you can imagine the problems we encountered with Chaucer's Middle English. I gave up on it and purchased a modern translation of the Tales. That didn't help either. Eventually I decided to give up on Chaucer altogether. After all, I had read The Canterbury Tales in Hungarian translation and I still remembered the plots. And there might not even be an exam question on Chaucer. Great relief, Chaucer is over, let's move on with to Milton. Should I relate the sad story of Milton? I guess I don't have to. Milton was a wipeout too. Oh, but then comes Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Surely that will be easier. It wasn't. Moreover, I hadn't read that particular Shakespearean play in Hungarian, which made things worse.

It was under these circumstances that we took our first exam half way through the year. What do I see? The very first compulsory question on the exam was a fairly lengthy quotation from Chaucer! I almost fainted, but then I called up all my brain power and, behold, I translated the whole passage. Next I had to identify the tale the passage came from and write something very clever about it. Here I needed a lot of imagination, but I guessed right. It was from the Prioress's Tale. So, after all, I had learned something during those four months.

Well, I didn't exactly get an A for my effort, but I managed a respectable C. Frank the second time around got a D, and a third Hungarian student sat through the two hours without writing a word.

I came to the conclusion later that to achieve a sufficient command of the English language to pass exams with flying colors one needs five years, starting from zero. At least that was my experience. But then I'm no Rózsa Hoffmann.

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Istvan Ertl
Guest

Quite a number of people seem to misunderstand something which is, though, plain to see: after a relatively straightforward start, English is not getting that much easier later. OK, the learning curve is not that steep, but it continues climbing upwards. German or French do have a more balanced distribution of difficulties as you go on learning them.
Ever the Esperantist, I’d add a quote:
http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Wikibooks:Language_Learning_Difficulty_for_English_Speakers:
“Esperanto is well worth checking out as a sort of bridge to other languages, reducing their learning curve and the time required to learn them. In the case of French, more than one independent study has shown that students managed to learn Esperanto and French more quickly than students who learnt only French.”

An
Guest
Eva, your assessment of needing about 5 years to learn a language to be able to use it functionally in an academic setting is quite in line with the current literature in applied linguistics. It is estimated that one needs about 2 years to acquire basic communication skills in a language and about 7 to acquire academic language. On a personal note, I am a living testament that it is possible to learn a foreign language in school. I started learning English in high school in Hungary. We had two 45 min. classes per week, which is ridiculously low if you are serious about learning a language. We were taught by what now they call the traditional grammar-translation method: we learned vocabulary and grammar, and we had to be able to translate sentences back and forth. By the end of high school I was able to pass the state intermediate exam, though I practically was not able to speak the language. I had solid passive knowledge of words and grammar but these just did not come to me when I had to talk. Not to mention that I was totally scared and intimidated to speak. Then came university, also in… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

An: “your assessment of needing about 5 years to learn a language to be able to use it functionally in an academic setting is quite in line with the current literature in applied linguistics.”
I’m glad because I had no idea what the current thinking is in professional circles about this topic. I was just going by my own experience.
At the time of course I was dissatisfied and frustrated with my progress. But I remember the thrill when at one time three of us were driving somewhere. Two Hungarians and an English-speaking Canadian whom we were taking home. Of course, the conversation went on in English but when the Canadian left the car I didn’t realize that I continued the conversation in English.
Klára Sándor, former SZDSZ MP and linguist in civilian life, wrote an entering series of articles on language in galamus.hu. One of them was about bilingualism. It is worth to take a few minutes to read it.

Minusio
Guest
Eva: ” I would have learned fifty times more English in the restaurant than in the classroom.” I think this conclusion is the most significant as it shows that learning a foreign language succesfully depends a lot on the setting. As my parents moved house several times within Germany, I had missed the beginning of both French and English at the Gymnasiums (not gyms, Paul) in two different federal states (“Länder”). So I stumbled along in English on a very poor level for several years until, at the age of 16, I was lucky to be able to attend an international sixth-form college in South Wales (United World College of the Atlantic). The college covered the two years before enrolling at a university. For all practical purposes, my English was non-existent at entry. After three months all foreign students had to take the Cambridge Proficiency Exam. Its level is comparable to English at O-level. Well, I didn’t flunk it and only had to retake one part after the xmas holidays. But the setting was ideal: Most teachers were English, half of the student body (at that time) was, too. I automatically learned the ‘jargon’ of the subjects I took in… Read more »
P.I.Hidas
Guest

Eva, we were in the same English class in Hamilton in 1957! The teacher was a remedial English specialist.

Member

I guess I never be able to translate Chaucer or T. S. Eliot. That’s hard, of course. But thanks to Elvis, the Beatles, Ice-T and Bill Gates kids have good head start on this language.
It should be taught because
1. It is the lingua franca.
2. Kids can be successful instead of frustrated.
And again it’s not the government’s job to find out what’s useful for our kids. They should consult the parents.
What is interesting to examine is the Hungarian right’s aversion to the English language. Because the root of this anti-English nonsense is not language related. It stems from the anti-Americanism.

chayenne
Guest
Actually, I partly agree with the now infamous Hoffman statement in terms of how English learning brings faster results than other foreign languages. What is preposterous is the line of argument that follows – although I can see the point behind it. My best friend learned German as her first foreign language and learning English after that was (I’m quoting her) a walk in the park. I don’t doubt that. I started with English and I remember that from the very first moment on I had zero difficulty with it, while my classmates seemed totally puzzled and confused. I passed the Rigo street examination in my second year of high school and that was it. I strongly believe that a lot depends on luck. That is, individual talent. I was talented so it came easy to me. I didn’t have particulary good teachers, but I was motivated, which is another key factor. When I was admitted to university, it soon turned out that my English was far inferior to that of most students, some of whom had spent longer periods of time abroad or had had better teachers at school. We had a kind of language course but it wasn’t… Read more »
peter litvanyi
Guest

Dear Mutt,
you just scored one full point on the account of Bibo. Guess you were right I just had a problem with your attitude. But did you say this time: “or T. S. Eliot.” You know Vas Istvan /if I remember correctly/ has a great translation of T.S. Am very territorial about Eliot.
Why do they blame US? Well, they don’t understand that Home Depot or GM /etc./ are no longer a United States affiliated entity.
Please tell them the truth as I have been trying.
Sincerely:
Peter Litvbanyi

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Peter Hidas: “The teacher was a remedial English specialist.”
Didn’t help, I’m afraid.

Naresh
Guest

I’ve read your blog and find it very much interesting. Learning English is very important because it improves ones chance of getting a good job. We love to see more on this site. Keep on updating…

Minusio
Guest

There is one thing I’d like to add. It seems as if most people on this blog accept the fact that in Hungary they have to pass language exams to get a university diploma in a non-linguistic field. As I see it, nobody should be allowed to enter university without having shown proficiency in at least two languages other than his/her mother tongue. If someone intends to study humanities (philosophical-historical faculty), Latin is a must as well.
The task of teaching languages to this level should rest squarely with the secondary schools.

Member

Government, government …
Why can’t we leave this to the college. What if they want more extracurricular science related work, instead of speaking German additionally to the English. If I was the dean I wouldn’t even require any languages as a “hard” requirement to the admission. I would just look at the whole package. In technical fields you are dead in the water anyway if you don’t speak English.

florian
Guest

I am so lucky that I am a native speaker of English. I would hate to learn it. My daughter has so many struggles with English spelling. I am tired of repeating the phrase “It is that spelling because it is, there is no reason.” Obviously English is so popular as a second language because it is so easy. Well I never…

Track runner
Guest

I think there is a great deal of misunderstanding here.
English is not easy per se but easier than say German or French.
If students have to learn two languages during their time in high school, they have a better chance of being able to learn both by starting with the harder one, THEN picking up the easier one (English). If they start with the easier one and have little time for the harder one most likely they will fail to learn the second language. This is very logical from a teaching standpoint.
However the underlying issue is the requirement of learning TWO languages. Every student should be learning a single language only, English. Learning multiple languages is not that important, it should be English only and secondary languages should be scaled back in favour of learning actual skills usable in the economy.

Odin's lost eye
Guest
Part of the problem for a person entering University where English is the spoken language and for those learning English as a second language for their university work, is that in both cases their teachers are trying to teach them to run before they can walk. What do I mean? The native speaker learns as a child most of the grammatical constructs used in every day speech. As children they learn some of the language’s very rich idiomatic and metaphoric expressions. It is this type of English which is the basis or bed rock of the language and not the high flown complex literature favoured in the ivory towers of academe. English is about communication not bouquets of flowers. A person at university is expected to be able to read and understand the example you used – T.S. Eliot – I on the other hand who can do it without too much trouble (except boredom) preferred the works of G.H Eliot (the chocolate coloured coon). Some of the people I worked with were often ‘men of few words’ (and 90% of those were obscene). A story – A young lady well taught and briefed by her teachers went for an… Read more »
GW
Guest

Track Runner:
English is only superficially “easier” than the languages you mention. It has the advantage, at the early stage, of offering some familiar lexicon items and enough simple syntactical forms that a beginner can acquire a modest amount of fluency. But actually speaking, listening, reading, and writing at the level of an educated native speaker comes only on an increasingly steep learning curve and the unique problems of native language interference when that native language is Hungarian only make that curve even steeper.
As a native English speaker with 10 years experience teaching EFL to professionals, I encountered many highly educated Hungarians — including a pair of English literature Professors — whose English was startling in its faults of idiom, register, syntax, and yes, simple grammar. These were bright and gifted people, but their language training simply lacked exposure to native speakers and competent teachers working with realia rather than teaching to written tests.

peter litvanyi
Guest
Oh, let’s take a brief break from the quaint mystery of the language. Check out Michael’s next movie. Trust me: this is relevant. We are trying to criticise /some defend/ Mr. Orban/ his politics here. Fact is, he is not so unique. He is just another servant, last link of a chain of events that led us here. Pehaps he is a bit more of an embarrassment to his masters than the previous ones were. Hungary was a mildly prosperous country when I left. Go and do something against the tide. Sincerely: Peter Litvanyi “August 5th, 2011 3:00 PM 30 Years Ago Today: The Day the Middle Class Died Credit: Flickr user labornotes By Michael Moore From time to time, someone under 30 will ask me, “When did this all begin, America’s downward slide?” They say they’ve heard of a time when working people could raise a family and send the kids to college on just one parent’s income (and that college in states like California and New York was almost free). That anyone who wanted a decent paying job could get one. That people only worked five days a week, eight hours a day, got the whole weekend off… Read more »
Paul
Guest
I am eternally grateful that I was born in a country where English is the native language, I would hate to have to ‘learn’ it! It may be ‘simplified German’, but that is only a small part of the story. Add to that nearly 1,000 years of French influence, including several centuries of dominance by that language (for a long time French and Latin were the languages of power and wealth in Britain, English was only spoken by the peasants – it is still considered ‘posh’ for restaurant menus to be in French!) and the craziness of imported (or made up) Greek words and spelling, and Latin vocabulary and grammar, forced into the language by Classics scholars determined to make English a more ‘literate’ language, and you have a complete mess. As someone with a wife who’s first language isn’t English and a daughter who is learning to read and write, I am daily brought face to face with the madness of English spelling, the utter confusion of words that are pronounced the same but spelt differently (lead, led), or spelt the same but pronounced differently (lead, lead), and the insanity of English grammar (for instance, taking the simplest grammatical… Read more »
Paul
Guest

Weirdly off-topic, Peter, even by my standards!
But this amused me:
“Christians hated anything that sounded like socialism or holding out a helping hand to minorities or women.”
Have these ‘Christians’ actually read the Gospels?

Istvan Ertl
Guest
Track runner: “English is not easy per se but easier than say German or French.” For whom? There is no such thing as a language “easy per se”. Even languages built on purpose, like Esperanto, cannot go lower than a certain threshold of complexity. http://ezinearticles.com/?What-Makes-One-Language-Harder-or-Easier-Than-Another?&id=224722 “If students have to learn two languages during their time in high school, they have a better chance of being able to learn both by starting with the harder one, THEN picking up the easier one (English). If they start with the easier one and have little time for the harder one most likely they will fail to learn the second language. This is very logical from a teaching standpoint.” Only if you make it a question of strictly allotted teaching time available. Otherwise it is more logical to start with a language closer to the pupil’s native language, or one that increases a pupil’s awareness of language structure generally: http://www.springboard2languages.org/home.htm > However the underlying issue is the requirement of learning TWO languages. Every student should be learning a single language only, English. On the whole, that would lead to a global decrease in cultural diversity. But there are no easy solutions, and I do… Read more »
Minusio
Guest

I am a little worried by the apparent lack of comprehension in this blog of what the curricula of Western European higher secondary schools (lycée, liceo, Gymnasium, grammar school) consist of. Regardless of what branch you take (classical languages, modern languages, mathematical-natural-sciences), all of them involve learning at least two foreign languages, in most cases three. So some of the commentaries here really baffled me. A school-leaving certicate (baccalauréat, maturità, Abitur) from a school at this level qualifies a student for university entry.
When I first heard that in Hungary one of the most essential parts of education and formation was shifted to the universities, I couldn’t believe my ears. What do young Hungarians learn at all until they are 18 years old? It sounds a lot like “education light” – and many seem to accept this low-brow, philistine concept.
The American system is quite different. As a consequence, an American student would be accepted at the University of Basel, for example. only with a B.A. in suitable subjects.

Paul
Guest

Just realised, I left the footnote off my post. It should have read:
*If you think you know how many different ways there are of making plurals in English, just Google it. I came up with about 10, but thought I’d probably missed a few, but Wikipedia lists dozens!

Odin's lost eye
Guest
Paul you wrote ** “So, why, after 10 years of ‘learning’ Hungarian can I still not speak it, and only read/understand a small amount? Well, I’m pretty crap at languages for a start, and I AM starting from English, and I’m not exactly in the first flush of youth. But, even I could make a fair fist of it if I had to – and had no option, because no one else spoke English, and was surrounded by native speakers (not an experiment I’m that eager to try, incidentally!).” ** I am exactly in your position. First part of the problem is that Hungarian is synthetic language and English is analytic. Hungarians add things to words to give their meaning. In English you would ask “may I have….” In Hungarian you use the word ‘Kaphatok’ (sorry no accents available). But the root word ‘kaphato’ implies that something is ‘available‘ or ‘obtainable’ depending on which side of the counter you are standing. The adding of the personal pronouns into the mix and you begin to get words of complexity. But none like some of the positively jaw breaking German words like Ringtrichterrichtungshoerer! (a listening device). The second part of the problem… Read more »
hettie
Guest
i’m not very sure when and how i learnt english to the standard I speak it now… i know i started when i was 9, there were extracurricular english classes for interested kids either before or after the regular classes… in secondary school i did spanish but learnt english alongside at home by watching films, listening to music and reading/internet. did a couple of short courses at Dover Language Centre, got taught by Peter Dohar which was huge fun!… we were reading Cat’s Cradle in class. I was about 19 at that point and asked for Vonnegut books in English for Christmas. By the time i went to England to volunteer at a charity one summer i could communicate at a fairly high level, at least i was informally regarded as the leader of the international volunteers because I was the only one of us who understood mostly everything the locals said. And at that point i started to believe that i could become bilingual and the silly psychological barriers finally came down. When I started my degree at Edinburgh I had already been proofreading international student’s work for like 3 years so academic writing did not cause a problem.… Read more »
miroslavaanglescina
Guest

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LwiiH
Guest

@miroslavanglescina, I see you’re working for Berlitz which I believe is a reputable company that I’m sure would frown upon it’s associates spamming blogs. Maybe you should talk to the owner of the blog to see if she’s willing to give you some gutter space for a proper advertisement. I’m sure Eva wouldn’t charge much and people would be much less annoyed with you!!!!

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