New Hungarian “language strategies”

It’s time to talk again about one of my hobby horses, foreign language teaching in Hungary. Faithful readers of this blog will undoubtedly recall how often we talked about the shortcomings of the system. Everybody has horror stories about learning a foreign language in Hungary. Although there are some schools that excel in teaching foreign languages, most students leave grade 12 without a working knowledge of a foreign language.

The Ministry of Human Resources is planning to introduce new “language strategies.” These strategies, hatched by the two undersecretaries in charge of education, Rózsa Hoffmann and István Klinghammer, are not designed to improve language teaching. Instead, they are designed to make Hungary’s dismal statistics look better.

Let’s start with Rózsa Hoffmann. It was about two years ago that the former high school teacher of Russian and French kept insisting that not one but two foreign languages should be taught in the schools and that graduating seniors should take their official state examinations prior to entering college. If they didn’t get that piece of paper they wouldn’t be able to continue their education. At that point critics of Hoffmann, who were numerous, argued that foreign language teaching in the public schools is not up to the task of preparing students to pass the Hungarian statewide exams.

Hoffmann had other fanciful ideas as well. Perhaps inspired by Viktor Orbán, who regretted learning English first because it was “too easy,” she wanted to shift the current emphasis on English to German or French.

Now, in a seeming about-face, this woman is supporting a system under which trade schools will offer a foreign language two 45-minute periods a week, down from three hours a week. With 90 minutes of classes a week there’s no way the student will be able to pass even the lowest level of the statewide foreign language examination called B1. And let’s assume that this student is actually learning a trade connected to tourism where knowing foreign languages is a must. For these students Hoffmann came up with a new, lower-level A1 examination which, according to most experts, might be enough to ask where the train station is but not enough to understand the answer.

It seems that it would be relatively easy to pass this A1-type of exam which, I understand, is no longer offered in other countries of the European Union. Its introduction would certainly not help foreign language fluency in Hungary. But, as commentators point out, the introduction of such a low-level exam would give a boost to the current dismal statistics. A site that gives a sense of the situation in Europe can be found here. Hungarian statistics are bad even in comparison to other countries in the region. If Hoffmann managed to introduce a new lower-level exam, perhaps the statistics would improve somewhat.

It's a;; greek to me

The other problem occurs at the university level. As things stand now, one needs to pass a B2-type exam in order to receive a diploma. Between 20 and 22 percent of students who completed all other requirements for a degree cannot receive their diploma because they are unable to pass their foreign language exam. István Klinghammer, who is in charge of higher education, came up with a solution “to rationalize the irrational requirements.” His solution would increase the number of graduates by 15 to 18 percent. In his opinion there are certain fields that simply don’t require the knowledge of a foreign language. Well, that’s an easy fix.

Indeed, one way or another Hungary needs more university graduates. According to the educational strategy of the European Union, by 2020 the percentage of university graduates in the 30- to 34-year-old group should reach 40%. Currently, the EU average is 34.6%; Hungary’s is far behind at 21.1%. Considering that the number of students entering university has dropped considerably since the introduction of very high tuition fees, achieving the desired number of university graduates by 2020 is most unlikely. But getting rid of language requirements in certain fields would improve the statistics in one fell swoop.

Here again ideas on foreign language requirements have changed radically since 2011 when the ministry wanted to demand that university students pass not B2 but C1 (advanced) language examinations from 2016 on. The usual chaos.

The inability of college graduating classes to pass their language exams is acute in all but the best universities. Top Budapest universities fare well: at the Budapest Technological Institute only 4.5% of the students leave without a diploma; at the Corvinus University of Economics it’s 11%. But elsewhere in the capital the numbers are grim. At the University of Óbuda 35% of the students don’t pass their language exams. At the National Közszolgálati Egyetem, the brainchild of the Orbán government where army and police officers as well as future civil servants are supposed to be trained, 35.5% of the students cannot get their diplomas. In the provinces the situation is even worse. In Kaposvár 50% of the students end up without a diploma; in Nyíregyháza 45% don’t graduate.

The reaction to the lowering of standards was immediate. Both the Association of Schools Teaching Foreign Languages and the Association for Language Knowledge protested. The problem is, according to the spokesman of the Association for Language Knowledge, that students are not required to use foreign-language materials during the course of their studies. Moreover, how can the quality of Hungarian higher education improve if students are unable to read the latest academic publications that appear mostly in English and German? It is a vicious circle. The quality of universities is low in part because the teaching is based only on Hungarian-language material, and the language skills of the students are low because they are not required to keep practicing and improving.

And finally, a few words about the B1, B2 and C1 exams. I tried a couple of sample tests and found that a few of the answers I gave were wrong. I asked an American friend of mine to take a look at a “fill in the blank” exam. This highly educated native speaker said that the test was “a mess.” I do hope that we just happened on an exception, not the rule.

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tappanch
Guest

All movies on television and almost all movies outside the very few art cinemas are dubbed in Hungary. This is very good for the actors and actresses to get supplementary income, but very bad for the rest of the people.

To a large part, this single fact contributes to the lack of knowledge of foreign languages in Hungary.

The situation is much better in other Eastern European countries.

Look at the map at
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dubbing_%28filmmaking%29#Voice-over

lutring magdolna
Guest

The nicest thing about the policies of the Hungarian gvmnt is that last year they helped me lose all my jobs with language studios.Language teaching has been banned from being promoted by the state in companies since Jan 1st last year which means not only managers but also workers were able to learn at their workplaces for free but now very few companies spend their möney on teaching their employees.
Moreover, from last January on, no language school teacher can apply for an EU grant…We are sinners because our language level is high. (I’m a self-employed English teacher who doesn’t get a job in schools as I’m too old: 58, so I should be paid more than a beginner.)
Now there are courses for language learing almost for free financed by the EU but the people of Budapest and middle Hungary have all used up their percentage so now only people with a valid address from other parts of Hungary can learn a foreign language in Budapest with EU money…Chaos.

lutring magdolna
Guest

Yes, Tappanach is right. Even with the new HD tenhnique, films cannot be watched in their original language. Luckily, more and more youngsters speak English and write in English while using the net.
In the summer of 2010, after the new gvmnt had started working, CNN was banned from our homes as the channel was highly critical of the new gvmnt.

anglawbp
Guest

They do seem to be in a muddle with their second-language strategies, that’s for sure. Nevertheless, despite the failings in the education system, many young Hungarians sign up for private language lessons and enter themselves for exams, in order to improve their employment prospects. Not ideal, I know, but it speaks well of the attitude of a significant number of young people here.

Still, at least we are better off than the US, where only just over half of higher education institutions require foreign language study for a baccalaureate; or Canada, where two thirds of higher education institutions don’t even have a second-language policy; or the UK, where more than a third of university foreign language departments have closed in the last ten years.

Member

As someone who has a Master’s degree from one of the top-rated universities in the US, I must say — university degrees are overrated. I hope both the US and Europe will begin to wean themselves of this ridiculous fascination with people who have degrees and begin to see that a degree does not determine a person’s capabilities for anything. Let’s not forget — Jozsef Torgyan is an egyetemi doktor.

Jano
Guest

“The quality of universities is low in part because the teaching is based only on Hungarian-language material, and the language skills of the students are low because they are not required to keep practicing and improving.”

I think this is the key element here. A language course is worth nothing if it’s a few hours a week but the students are not even thinking about them otherwise. That’s just simply not how the brain is designed to learn a language in adulthood. You have to find ways to use it somehow and there’s no other way. The best solution would be to switch the entire Master level to English and use English textbooks. Surely, some kids would be struggling but at least they wouldn’t be sold a lie that they are going to be competitive on their field without a minimal level of English. (Believe me, it doesn’t take much to be able to read a textbook.)

anglawbp
Guest
Eva S. Balogh : anglawbp : Still, at least we are better off than the US, where only just over half of higher education institutions require foreign language study for a baccalaureate; or Canada, where two thirds of higher education institutions don’t even have a second-language policy; or the UK, where more than a third of university foreign language departments have closed in the last ten years. Very true but there are couple of reasons for this. One, and that is a very important one, English-speakers get along just fine without knowing another language.Smaller language groups can’t afford this luxury. Second,in the United States at least most people are never required to speak another language. That’s not the case in Europe where you travel a few hundred kilometers and you are in a different country with a different language. If there is not need, why bother, says the ordinary citizen. With the UK the situation is the same. Most of them will say: I get along just fine with English anywhere.There is little incentive to learn another language. But when we, Hungarian refugees ended up in another country, we had no choice. Sink or swim. That is not the case… Read more »
Johnny Boy
Guest

lutring magdolna :
Yes, Tappanach is right. Even with the new HD tenhnique, films cannot be watched in their original language. Luckily, more and more youngsters speak English and write in English while using the net.
In the summer of 2010, after the new gvmnt had started working, CNN was banned from our homes as the channel was highly critical of the new gvmnt.

I think you only hope to get away with all your lies.
CNN is not banned, I can watch it anytime I want. Same as with all other channels; none are banned.
And the state did not forbid any language schools to get promoted, if that’s what you mean but all you write is a mess. There is no single new law concerning any language schools whatsoever. There is absolutely no change at all.

Mutt
Guest
I will never forget it when our Rozsa The Riveter gave a press conference sometime in 2011 about her genius ideas and started to sing to audience “Quand trois poules vont au champ”. It was pathetic. Yeah. The old chick on the fields … Right. If you can’t fix the statistics fix the methodology. We are good at it. Just look at the proliferation of think tanks in Hungary and how they come up with everything and the opposite at the same time about everything depending on political affiliations. To me even the idea of requiring language exams in colleges was the same thing somehow. To me it meant the admission of incompetence to reform the system. So they went “we cant teach you but you will take care of it somehow and pass”. Case closed. Another aspect is as we talked about it before is the language isolation is actually helping them to carry out the biggest brainwash in Hungaria history since Matyas Rakosi. Less information the people understand the better. Plus emigration will also be less. Just to round it up add the anti-American sentiment to explain their aversion to the English language. English smells like freedom. They… Read more »
Minusio
Guest
I happen to believe that there is a huge difference between a diploma at whatever stage and an abitur, matura or baccalaureate. The latter three (all continental European) mean that you have acquired the right to enter a university – and, of course, with it comes the attestation of a working knowledge of a mix of languages (two ancient and one modern, one ancient and two modern or three modern). If you want to enroll in the philosophical faculty at Basel university you have to take a crash course in Latin – first. Again: This is all before you actually begin your university studies. To me that is the the logical sequence. First of all that way you can understand essential material that wasn’t written in your mother tongue and incorporate it in your studies, secondly you have some idea of the mentality of other cultures, know at least a little bit of their literature. Everything else would be parochial. That the Anglo-Saxons thought for a long while that they didn’t need this aspect of education hasn’t helped them at all. Interestingly, though, scholars of Latin and Greek in Britain and Germany had an intensive, eye-to-eye discourse – all in… Read more »
JGrant
Guest
I know we agreed that trolls should be ignored, but I must clear up something that Johnny Boy wrote. He is right in that no language courses as such were outright banned, and still what lutring magdolna wrote is absolutely true. What the government did was to take away the tax break that went with these courses and therefore most firms discontinued them, having lost the incentive. As for CNN, again no ban, but I believe some cable companies have taken it out of their packages, although mine still has it. All these instances just prove that the ‘soft dictatorship’ that we currently live under is slowly, but surely and with stealth is getting harder. As for why people should learn languages? Yes, anglo-saxons are lazy because everybody speaks and understands theirs, but as Prof. Balogh quite rightly writes that luxury is not afforded to a small nation like Hungary. However, looking at it from where I am standing the most important issue is not language competency, but what the knowledge of a foreign language gives you. It opens your horizons, it assures access to foreign news, so your own government cannot totally brainwash you inside your own country and… Read more »
Guest
Re CNN and other channels: We have a “basic package” of cable tv channels which doesn’t include CNN anymore – of course we could get a more expensive package … Re language teaching in Hungary: I’ve surely written about this before, but I’ll repeat it. When I met my wife’s son the first time and we had a conversation in English I was really astonished that he didn’t seem to know the difference between he/she, his/hers etc (you know in Hungarian it’s all the same …) – until he told me that his English teacher had “explained” it to her pupils that this was too difficult for them, so they just should ignore it … And after many years of speaking some kind of pidgin English it’s really difficult to overcome this – but he’s managed, not only because we converse so often but also because he uses English a lot every day in his work. People from other smaller countries with their own languages (like Benelux or Scandinavia) have known this instinctively for a long time that in order to have success you must know at least one of your big neighbours’ languages, so I’m no longer surprised when… Read more »
Bowen
Guest

The ‘A1’, ‘B1’, ‘B2’ levels Eva refers to are the Common European Framework levels for language learning (Council of Europe) and are used by every major examining board for assessing a learner’s capabilities (Cambridge Exams, IELTS, etc.).

Although ‘A1’ might sound nice, and at the top, it is actually the lowest possible level of language learning (C2 is ‘proficient’). At A1, a learner can be expected to say his/her name, basic likes/dislikes, say basic numbers, etc. But nothing more. It is a ‘starter’ level.

Moreover, there is no international examining board anywhere, whatsoever which would provide any kind of certificate for ‘passing’ an A1 level. (Cambridge have an exam for passing ‘A2’ – the ‘Preliminary English Test’ but very few people bother taking this, because there’s nothing you can realistically do with this certificate).

So, yes, having an ‘A1’ test in Hungary could be passed by virtually anyone (including mynah birds and parrots, I suppose) who can say ‘My name is …”. Pretty meaningless, though, apart from boosting statistics.

Meanwhile, the number of Hungarians taking the IELTS exam every month (you need an IELTS certificate at ‘B2’ level if you want to study at a British university) continues to be consistently high.

JGrant
Guest

OT – Court ruled to rerun Baja election in the district where the irregularities were. Is this a genuine victory for the law or a hiccup? If former, God save the judge!

Member
Jano : The best solution would be to switch the entire Master level to English and use English textbooks. Surely, some kids would be struggling but at least they wouldn’t be sold a lie that they are going to be competitive on their field without a minimal level of English. (Believe me, it doesn’t take much to be able to read a textbook.) In the Nordic countries, where especially in the younger generations “everybody” speaks (and is supposed to speak) English, linguists (like myself) have started pulling the brake: no, we don’t necessarily need all university programmes in English, and we must ensure the future of the national language as a language of science and learning, not banish it into the kitchen… But there are lots of alternatives between endangering the future of the national language (by letting English take over all “higher” and more prestigious domains) and condemning young people to a dead end of virtual monolingualism, as Hungary seems to be doing. I don’t believe that the solution is in the university programmes or in obligatory language exams of any kind. (I did take a couple of obligatory language exams as part of my university studies in Finland… Read more »
oneill
Guest
What makes the matter worse is that our beloved regime has now decided to target the private language schools with its typical corruption vindictiveness and rank incompetence. Apologies for the article being in Hungarian: http://index.hu/belfold/2013/09/16/a_nyelviskolak_torkan_akad_az_uj_szabalyolyozas/ As I understand it, all language schools will now need to provide a huge financial guarantee (a la travel agents) to compensate students in event of bankruptcy! Furthermore, any teacher wishing to teach lawyers, doctors, accountants etc will need not only a teaching qualification but also the same level of professional qualification as held by his or her students, ie you won’t be able to teach doctors unless you are a qualified doctor yourself. Finally, the coup de grace is that schools as from 1st September can only employ accredited teachers… the only problem is that the regime has forgotten to also include what the basis of that accreditation should be. The EU tender to provide “free” lessons for up to 3 months stunk again to high heaven, schools were opened on the Monday in order to apply for the tender on the Friday. They got, because of party connections, the contract. Only problem is that they had no teachers which were then subcontracted from… Read more »
Guest

Some time ago I wrote joking (here or on pol.hu) “You don’t need an education to raise pigs” …

It seems to me that Fidesz really believes in this – education is only necessary for a small ruling class.

Eva’s numbers about the significantly lower numbers of university graduates in Hungary compared to the rest of Europe show the same concept and the regular talking by Orbán etc about “making Hungary the production center of Europe” amplifies this.

Do they really want a return to the feudal society of the late 19th/early 20th Century in Hungary ? Or are they just too stupid to understand the modern world ?

PS:

An din addition the academic system seems to concentrate on technical knowledge of all kinds: engineers, doctors, maybe lawyers – a liberal education is a waste for them …

Compare this with the academic level of Hungary under Austrian rule with its rich academic life – but of course (too … in some people’s eyes) many of those academics, writers etc were Jews …

andy
Guest

Xenophobia and Insular attitudes.

At the gut level. All of it wrapped in a cloak of a Taboo theme.

The entire Foreign Language Disorder in Hungary comes down to this one basic Hungarian traditional stance.

Fidesz is currently a primary and intense perpetrator of such attitudes. The game is self-perpetuating. Narrow vision. Narrow thinking and analysis. Inability to critically see self or attitudes. Taboo thematic.

All this causes gridlock. Like a cement block that’s tied to your feet as you are thrown into the water.

Slow asphyxiation or drowning. ‘Western Europe and thinking’ is the largest body of “water” surrounding Hungary. And since there’s no liberal, open, unthreatening discussion here, the feet to move to change is unlikely to have a long-term effect.

Additionally the above is is either scoffed at or best denied cause the self-perpetuating requirement is that it be considered a TABOO subject.

Cico vicioso

tappanch
Guest

@JGrant

This is a Pyrrhic victory. What happened in Baja was a breach of “campaign silence” in the pre-2014 electoral system. Fidesz has deleted “campaign silence” from the the electoral law effective January 1, 2014.

tappanch
Guest

So the opposition should start organizing the transportation for its voters NOW.

Francis
Guest

I have been reading your blog for over a year and I believe it’s very informative. Thanks for all your efforts. Here is a link to an interesting article. http://www.budapesttimes.hu/2013/09/29/bok%C2%AD%C2%ADros-comes-out-swinging/

JGrant
Guest

tappanch :
@JGrant
This is a Pyrrhic victory. What happened in Baja was a breach of “campaign silence” in the pre-2014 electoral system. Fidesz has deleted “campaign silence” from the the electoral law effective January 1, 2014.
So the opposition should start organizing the transportation for its voters NOW.

Couldn’t agree more. I lived in the UK for nearly 40 years, there nobody had the slightest objection to giving lifts to old ladies to the poling stations. I suppose the situation in Hungary is slightly different as in a country with such long traditions of electoral fraud, it would simply mean packing, like they did in Baja.

As for it being a Pyrrhic victory, I suspected as much. However, I still think that the judge(s) that handed down that judgement can probably say good bye to his/her/their career.

tappanch
Guest

from today’s online HVG journal:

EU money for language teaching schools go to schools connected to Fidesz.:

http://hvg.hu/hvgfriss/2013.39/201339_a_nyelvtanitasi_piac_ujraosztasa_babeli_zur

Bowen
Guest

tappanch :from today’s online HVG journal:
EU money for language teaching schools go to schools connected to Fidesz.:
http://hvg.hu/hvgfriss/2013.39/201339_a_nyelvtanitasi_piac_ujraosztasa_babeli_zur

Surely this is nothing new? I’m reminded that the previous owner of one of Budapest’s largest language schools (it isn’t large any more) is currenly enjoying an ambassador post in Canberra (of all things).

tappanch
Guest

The current version (June 2013) of the electoral law does not contain the notion “campaign silence”, and does not ban free food, drink or transportation.

It contains the passage in 144.§(5) that the local authorities (that is Fidesz) may ban political ads in public places.

http://net.jogtar.hu/jr/gen/hjegy_doc.cgi?docid=A1300036.TV

tappanch
Guest

@Bowen
His school is mentioned as one of the few getting the EU money.

tappanch
Guest

Actually there is a restriction on “campaign activity” on voting day within 150 meters of the voting places, according to 143. §.

So free food, drink or money can be given & voters must be dropped outside the 150 meter radius, in my interpretation.

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