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.