Foreign language teaching in Hungary: Progress is very slow

Hungarians’ subpar knowledge of foreign languages in comparison to other European countries becomes a hot topic in the media from time to time. The reasons for this periodic interest in the topic vary. There are times when an international poll is taken, from which the population can learn that Hungary is again the very last on the list. That piece of news is usually followed by some soul-searching and analyses of the probable causes of the problem. Second, at this time of the year we normally learn that thousands of new college graduates cannot receive their diplomas because in four years they didn’t manage to pass a B2 (intermediate) language exam. (Here are some sample English and German tests a student would be confronted with.) Or, the occasion may be a new government decree that would change the current requirements. It just happened that in the last few months all three of these scenarios converged. A new poll was published, news came about the thousands of graduates without language certification, and the government announced its intention to require the infamous B2 exam prior to entry to college or university.

HVG called the results of a graph published by the European Commission’s Directorate General for Interpretation “shocking.” According to the graph, which the directorate general published on Facebook, the very last country out of 24 European countries is Hungary, where only 37% of adults between the ages of 25 and 64 can speak at least one foreign language. The runner-up is Bulgaria with 39%. Among the poor performers–countries whose score is below the EU average–are Poland (62%), Italy (60%), France (59%), Belgium (58%), Greece (58%), Portugal (58%), and Spain (51%). These scores might place the countries toward the bottom of the list, but they are still way ahead of the scores Bulgaria and Hungary achieved.

Although the problem is great, it is only now that the government decided to conduct a scientific study on the probable causes for these poor results. Those who want to pass the buck try to convince themselves and others that the grammatical structure of Hungarian is the principal obstacle to learning Indo-European languages. But, according to a survey, 69% of Finns speak one or more foreign languages. So clearly, this theory can easily be debunked. One cannot complain about the number of hours Hungarian students spend learning languages. For example, Hungarian kids spend 936 hours over nine years to learn their first foreign language, compared to 537 in Poland and 472 in Romania. According to foreign language experts, to pass the B2 test 500-600 classroom hours are plenty.

If Hungarian speakers are not inherently handicapped when it comes to learning languages and if more than enough time is allotted to foreign language study, the problem must be either with the teachers or with the teaching methods. Experts specializing in foreign language education claim that the quality of the Hungarian foreign language teachers is satisfactory. That is, they are competent in the languages they teach. The problem lies with the methodology. Studies show that one-third of all language teachers still use methods that are responsible for the dismal performance of their students. For example, the primary language in the classroom is Hungarian. The classes are deadly because the students mainly memorize words out of context and picayune grammatical points are discussed, for example tenses that are rarely used in normal conversation. The mainstay of the classroom routine is a question by the teacher followed by a student answer, which is dissected and corrected right there. Once that is done comes the new victim. This practice kills Hungarians’ willingness to speak freely for fear of making a mistake.

But there are structural problems in the school system itself that affects not only foreign language learning but learning other subjects as well. That is the 8 + 4 school system, which was originally designed for the time when compulsory education ended after grade 8. That meant that history, literature, chemistry, physics, geography, math, and a foreign language—in those days Russian—were taught on a very elementary level. Relatively few students continued their education in gymnasiums. And so, all these essential subjects were taught again, allegedly on a higher level, in high school. Since 40-45% of grade 8 students still don’t attain the expected level of competence in the foreign language they studied since grade 4, the level of instruction must inevitably be lowered in the first couple of years of high school. Some experts claim that in many schools foreign language teaching in grade 9 begins from square one.

Then there is the problem of overemphasizing the importance of the language tests, although we know there is no clear correlation between passing the tests and knowing the language. In the Kádár regime, once someone passed an official language exam, he was set for life. Whether he needed that foreign language in his work or not, he received extra pay for the rest of his working life. To some extent this is still the case. I read an article in which the author tried to find an explanation for those 10,000 or so students yearly who cannot receive their diplomas because in four or five years they didn’t manage to pass the foreign language exam. The author’s explanation is that in a great number of cases the diploma-less student finds a job without that infamous B2 exam. In her opinion, the motivation is still insufficient. But I suspect that the universities themselves are in part responsible for this state of affairs because students are rarely required to use a foreign language during their years in college. The inclusion of foreign-language articles in the list of compulsory readings would certainly provide some motivation to improve one’s language skills.

The latest government decision to require passing the B2 foreign language exam prior to entering university is a typical Orbán government move. Such a requirement would be fair only if students could learn a foreign language well enough to be able to pass this intermediate language test, but as things stand now this is not the case. In fact, according people familiar with the situation, in order to overcome this hurdle students need extra tutoring by competent teachers from language schools. These lessons are not inexpensive, and only better-off parents can afford them. This will mean that thousands of students coming from a lower socio-economic background will be barred from acquiring a college education. Although even the Orbán-appointed ombudsman has reservations about this plan, the government is bound and determined to introduce it by 2020. To give you an idea of the gravity of the situation, in 2016 39% of all entering college students didn’t have their B2 language exam behind them. The numbers were especially high among those who entered teacher’s colleges. Some smaller universities outside of Budapest also did very badly.

At the moment we don’t know what’s going to happen by 2020, but the government decided in June that a nationwide survey should be conducted between now and February 2018. The survey of 17,000 students will be conducted in 70 high schools and 100 elementary schools. I must say that such a survey should have been done decades ago because the problems of foreign language teaching are at least a century old. In the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy those soldiers who served in the k. und k. (kaiserlich und königlich) army, in which the language of command was German, managed to learn rudimentary German. But especially after 1945, during a long period of linguistic isolation and the exclusive teaching of Russian, the situation deteriorated significantly. Unfortunately, opening the borders didn’t make a quick and appreciable difference. It would be high time to remedy the situation, but the Orbán government’s educational philosophy is antagonistic to modern teaching methods, so desperately needed in Hungarian schools.

August 7, 2017
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Claude
Guest

Foreign language success also generally goes better in contexts where interest in the wider world and other peoples and cultures is promoted and considered a positive value…

Ivan
Guest

Two Hungarian policemen are approached by a foreign tourist.
“Excuse me, do you speak English?”
– shrugs
“Parlez vous français?
– grunts, shrugs
“Sprechen Sie deutsch?
– ditto
etc etc
After tourist gives up and moves on, one cop says to the other, “you know, this won’t do, they really ought to make us learn a foreign language.”
“What’s the point?” comes the reply, “look at this guy and all his knowledge – where did it get him?”

PENNY OSWALT
Guest

I live in US and I only speak English. It is my desire to speak the Hungarian language, I have learned basic greeting phrases off of a CD called in Flight Hungarian and I have used sound-alike words. Thank you very much in the Hungarian. I spell in the English print language “Gussanan Sapan with the A spoken with a line on top of it. I can count to 20 in the hungarian language but for me to spell the words in proper Hungarian print is very hard. I have 16 years of education, so how does this statement of mine debunk the myth?

Jean P.
Guest

One person’s testimony can neither support nor debunk a myth. A significant number of people is required.

Gretchen
Guest

Dear Penny,
This doesn’t debunk the myth. It is necessary to be taught by a native speaker. There are some apps you can use on the computer which would also help. You can also visit Hungary for a more immersive experience.

Wondercat
Guest

We’ll know that Hungary, as a society, wants to open itself to learning new languages when the television channels subtitle, rather than dub, the programmes bought in from abroad. Speed the day!

petofi
Guest

Precise, Wondercat.
Nothing worse than hearing some Hungarico dub Bogart, or Cooper, or Tracy, or Gable.

Member
The usual excuses my Hungarian acquaintances come up with: 1) Our language is so different. Yet Finns and Estonians have managed to learn foreign languages. 2) Hungary is ethnolinguistically very homogeneous, while in the Eurobarometer study, in many other countries the multilingual persons are actually immigrants or autochthonous minorities who speak the national language as a second language. Without the immigrants and speakers of Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, Britain would have performed even more poorly than Hungary. – All true but doesn’t explain away the poor performance of Hungary. And again, in Finland the percentage of speakers of “immigrant languages” is around 6%. 3) In many other countries, in the Eurobarometer study the most often mastered languages are closely related to the national language. In Portugal, many people know Spanish, and many Slovaks know Czech, but given the close relatedness, this is no major intellectual achievement 😉 . – However, relatedness is not enough, it takes exposure and interest as well. Many Danes know Swedish but only a few Swedes know Danish, very few Finns know Estonian while some 20% of the Estonians know Finnish. In olden times, my attempts to criticize the poor language knowledge of Hungarians always triggered… Read more »
petofi
Guest

In actual fact, pre-1956, most Hungarian businessman had to speak German & Italian. Of course, that was before the present national preoccupation with ‘great Hungary’. And, of course, massive country-wide laziness.

And let’s admit it: most businessman were jews, and they’ve mostly flown the coop. So, what you’ve got left are those ‘bunkos’ in baggy pants…

Hajra Magyarok!

Guest

“This practice kills Hungarians’ willingness to speak freely for fear of making a mistake.”

I can confirm that this is the case within many Hungarian schools, and as well as universities.

Having taught in both, there was a marked difference between most of the
Hungarian students and the foreign students, in their willingness to speak up.

One memorable group of Hungarians huddled at the back of the classroom to avoid being called to speak at all.

And the reason was quite clearly because they were afraid of making a mistake and being umiliated, as was their experience with ghastly “porosz” Hungarian teachers and their “methods”

Guest
Again this sad situation reminds me of the time when I went to school 60 years ago: Growing up in the French Occupied Zone of Germany French was the first foreign language at the Gymnasium, eight years of it after which I could read Voltaire but couldn’t read a menue or order something in a restaurant … And of course without practice I’ve forgotten everything! So again Hungary seems to be 50 years behind. The situation is surely made more difficult because there are not enough good teachers, some time ago it was even worse, because everybody had just learned Russian and the English or German teachers were just one lesson in front of their pupils … My favourite story: My wife’s son learned English, he’s quite good but always makes mistakes re he/she/it, his/hers etc – that distinction doesn’t exist in Hungarian. When I asked him about it he told me that his teacher had said something like: That’s too complicated for you, you don’t have to learn this … Luckily after 10 years of practicing with me it’s become better. PS: I totally agree that learning a foreign language helps widening your horizon! Btw in Germany at the… Read more »
Andrew James
Guest

Your analysis is spot on. Despite more than 25 years of training in communicative teaching methods, these have failed to change classroom culture in state schools. Bilingual methodology is now the best way forward, beginning in primary schools.

Bastiat2
Guest

There is one country I know a little better than others (apart from Hungary), that is France. the figure of 59% of people from 25 to 64 who speak a foreign language is a gross exaggeration. Most French speak only French and are proud of it. Maybe a remnant of those bygone days when an educated Frenchman could travel all over Europe and everyone could answer him in good and sometimes perfect French, be it in London, Berlin or Moscow.
So, beware of those international surveys…

Member

You’re right. On a busstravel it was a relief when we stopped at a gasstation at Mullhausen and the crew could speak german. Hoohe. : )

Observer
Guest

Statistics is what counts.
My personal experience of many visits to France, countryside included, is that most young people and all uni graduates speak English. Much worse in Spain though.

Ferenc
Guest
During my stay in the 2000’s in Hungary I have worked with people coming straight from the university, and I was flabbergasted about their very limited skills in foreign languages, very poor English and hardly any German. It appeared also that Hungarian colleagues of my own age spoke better English and/or German than the younger generation. Regarding learning foreign languages, not only the teachers and the methods count, but also the students themselves. As stated before I in general consider Hungarians to be “too proud for their own good” and this hinders them in trying to express themselves in a foreign language, they feel they don’t have sufficiently mastered. On top of that their fear of making a mistake is increased by their experiences in the classroom, as Eva pointed out. Next to of course better learning methods, I suggest to stop with synchronization of films and TV, much better is using subtitles. It lets you hear the persons/actors in their own voice, makes you familiar with the sounds of that foreign language and indirectly teaches you something of that language. Personally I got very tired of hearing again and again the same synchronizing voices supposedly coming out of the… Read more »
Ferenc
Guest

PS: the data from the HVG article is from 2011 and was published in 2013, here’s Eurostat’s press release with more details
http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/2995521/5162658/3-26092013-AP-EN.PDF/139b205d-01bd-4bda-8bb9-c562e8d0dfac
Funnily no data available for Finland and the UK.

Member

“In the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy those soldiers who served in the k. und k. (kaiserlich und königlich) army, in which the language of command was German, managed to learn rudimentary German.”

Heh, maybe, maybe not! I’m reminded of a funny scene in Jaroslav Hašek’s “Good Soldier Svejk” in which a Hungarian soldier and a German soldier are having a conversation in German during World War I (when the novel takes place).

Hašek writes that the Hungarian only knows two words in German: “Ja” and “Was.” When the German is speaking, then the Hungarian says “Ja, ja.” When the German stops speaking, the Hungarian asks, “Was?” That causes the German to start speaking again, and so goes their “conversation.”:)

Istvan
Guest

Both my grandfather and great uncle served in the Austro-Hungarian Army and spoke broken German, which they believed was fine German indeed. My father formally studied German in high school for four years and would always tell me their German was god awful, but none the less I was impressed as a child that these old men were so multilingual. They also knew some slovenský jazyk and český jazyk, which I can’t tell apart, but they could. Chicago was a potpourri of Central European languages and German well until the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Ferenc
Guest

Another graph from European Commission Interpreters facebook:
How many pupils learn two or more foreign languages? (% of pupils at lower secondary school, data from 2015)
Announcement of the results: ”and the loser is: Hungary with 6%”
Details at https://www.facebook.com/EUinterpreters/photos/a.174916042651212.46379.172600716216078/899218443554298/

Member

Only 20% of the Hungarians can “converse” in English, last place in the EU.

comment image

exTor
Guest

I dont for a minute believe those figures, tappanch. I can converse in Hungarian only because I was born into Hungarian, which subsequently became my second language.

I absolutely do NOT believe that one Magyar in five can say something more than rudimentary in English. Conversing is more than a quickie ‘Where can I get some beer?”/”At the corner.” exchange.

The percentage of Magyars who can speak English at some sort of reasonable level is probably in the low-single digits.

comment image

Those figures you’ve trotted out are counterintuitive, tappanch. Sorry. They’re just as bullshit as those online Babel ads promising a new languague within a week.

To me, a learned language is not one where one employs a bunch of stock phrases. Ask Éva how long it took before she became comfortable with the English she learned.

Language acquisition has to be paired with language usage otherwise it disappears. I couldn’t hold a conversation in French, not now, not a half century after my 4 years of highschool instruction.

There is ZERO chance that 20% of Magyars can hold REAL-WORLD conversations in English at this juncture. That is a BS stat.

MAGYARKOZÓ

Guest

My wife’s son and his wife now speak very good English – it wasn’t bad when we met more than 10 years ago and they’ve been practising with me – in the beginning of our relationship they often helped translating from Hungarian to English and back …
And I know some of their friends who also speak good English.
On the other hand around here (Hévíz) mayn Hungarians speak “passable” German and some are really good.

So in the right places like the big cities there are enough people who know at least one foreign language – but …
A counterexample:
My wife’s sister’s grandson (the family lives in the USA where he grew up) felt really alone at his grandmother’s place in Eastern Hungary – because there was no one at all who he could speak English to …

Observer
Guest

Sorry guys, don’t argue with stats unless you can analyse the method, i.e. counting Czech as foreign in Slovakia.

BTW the map and stats above coincide with my impressions from extensive traveling in Europe (and I know something about languages – can hold a conversation in many).

exTor
Guest

Either you’re a far-better person languagewise than most, or your conception of what constitutes a conversation is far-more liberal than the conceptions of most people, Observer.

MAGYARKOZÓ

Member

Another last place. “Average number of foreign languages studied per pupil, 2013:

comment image

Ferenc
Guest

Thanks for the maps, made me check https://jakubmarian.com/
There’s a lot of interesting things to discover there!
Completely OT: I stumbled there on “5 weird things you didn’t know about time zones” – https://jakubmarian.com/5-weird-things-you-didnt-know-about-time-zones/ and this brought back great memories of my India-Nepal travel in the 1990s.
For an explanation about the time difference between India and Nepal look here at “the 15 minutes of fame” http://nepalitimes.com/news.php?id=10013#.WYmyfWAUnDc

Member

Effects of propaganda vs reality

“major threats to our country”:

large number of refugees:

Greece: 67%
Hungary: 66% propaganda
Lebanon: 66% reality
Italy: 65%
Kenya: 65%
Turkey: 64%
Poland: 60% propaganda

US: 36%
Germany: 28%
Canada: 25%
Sweden: 22% propaganda ? (downplaying)

http://www.pewglobal.org/interactives/greatest-threats-around-the-world/

wrfree
Guest
Re: ‘typical Orban government move’ As language and education could be the greatest skills individuals can possibly have in our rapidly changing complicated world it is completely disheartening and soul-crushing to watch generations who will possibly be disenfranchised from acquiring those badly needed skills as a result of blind and self-serving policies by a government just out of touch. 2020 could the denouement of having a certain class achieve any semblance of upward mobility in their society. It would be then that ‘travel’ to other environments would have to be the best activity to learn about people and the world and living a better life. There is no upside to living in a dark box. Question: Is there some sort of dislike or possibly hatred for the great Magyar ‘unwashed’ to acquire skills desperately needed to engage themselves in a future quality of life that would fulfill them? Hard to believe but more and more there looks to be leaders who seem to engage in some sort of ‘schadenfreude’. They certainly are not the sharpest tools in the shed when it comes to ‘good’ governing. They keep the advantages to themselves. And regarding language, we should think that Magyarorszag would… Read more »
petofi
Guest

“…govt just out of touch…”

No, not really. The govt does Orban’s will.

Most people don’t understand that Orban has no interest in furthering Hungarians–he prefers to rape them and make fun of them, in which endeavour he largely succeeds.

Observer
Guest

No Petofi, no. I won’t have this.

Orban doesn’t “prefer”, this is his life form.
And not making fun of Hungarians, he raping and robbing them blind. The fact that many cheer in the process may be some fun for the perpetrator, I suppose.

Member
Another good Finno-Ugric point of comparison is Estonia, because they also had compulsory Russian eating away the resources for foreign language teaching in olden times. And they really had to learn Russian – it was omnipresent in certain professions, in higher education, and in principle all able-bodied men were conscripted for military service in a completely Russian-language environment. Therefore, and because of the large Russian-speaking immigrant minority in Estonia, the numbers of foreign languages spoken or multilingual persons cannot really be compared. But what can be compared is the knowledge of Western languages (excluding Finnish, which is closely related and in olden times was typically picked up from Finnish tv and radio broadcasts or from tourists). And, as shown by the Eurobarometer study, 50% of Estonians are able to hold a conversation in Estonian. Or you can take a look at the graph on this page: http://www.stat.ee/files/koolinurk/rahvaloendusest/rel2000/keeled.php . According to the census of 2000, already then more than 60% of Estonian teenagers knew English (the orange curve, compare it with the light blue curve which shows that Russian is widely mastered by older generations). So, neither the excuse of compulsory Russian for older generations nor the excuse of the language being… Read more »
Member

The Sentrooppa-Santra data posted above offers an interesting point: The only country where fewer people can speak a foreign language than Hungary is Ireland.

How now? Irish (Gaelic) is the official language of the country, it is required for many government jobs, it is used on all public signs, and it is mandatory in Irish schools. Why, then, can only a fraction of the population speak the Irish language? Why do they prefer English, the language of the hated conquerors?

According to one analysis (http://www.brighthubeducation.com/social-studies-help/45189-irish-gaelic-as-a-living-language/):

“Most students—and their schools—don’t take [Irish] seriously, resulting in poor teachers, poor teaching—and poor learning. There are often few, if any repercussions for students who get bad marks in their Irish classes, either from their parents or from the school. Fluency in Irish is not a major issue with colleges either, so those students seeking higher education feel little pressure to bother with the traditional language of their country.”

I would submit that similar phenomena are responsible for the poor state of foreign-language education in Hungary: Academic dishonesty, arrogance and laziness.

exTor
Guest

A few Magyars have bemoaned the quality of their English-language instruction, however I dont know how far in the past that represents. Perhaps things have improved.

MAGYARKOZÓ

Member

In most European countries, all foreign movies are subtitled. In Hungary, most of them are dubbed.

Dubbed movies are excellent source of income for the actors, but detrimental to the competitiveness of a country.

exTor
Guest

Dubbers are not necessarily actors, tappanch. How is dubbing detrimental to the competitiveness of a country? This is new to me.

MAGYARKOZÓ

exTor
Guest

A quibble. Dubbers can be actors and actors can be dubbers.

If, by saying that “dubbers are actors”, you imply that a good dubber needs to be a good actor, I will accept your statement. If you also imply that most (or perhaps only some) actors dub, then I will also accept your statement.

My point that “dubbers are not necessarily actors” implies that there is no prerequisite that one be an established actor in order to dub, one needs only to have an ear sensitive to the nuances of language. No acting experience necessary.

MAGYARKOZÓ

petofi
Guest

My favorite dubbing is done by Poles. When in foreign lands, I often tuned into movies where the dubbing of all the parts where done by one person. Great fun.

petofi
Guest

@ exTor

Let’s take the kiddie steps–dubbing puts the mind to sleep, and prevents viewers to learn even a little of the foreign language.

Ferenc
Guest

Fully agree with tappanch!
Regarding dubbing and voices, I’m really curious who is the person behind the voice in the government’s videos (consultation, referendum, etc).
A word, I noticed as being used (too?) many times in those videos is “felháborító”, meaning outrageous and/or shocking. Now I have the habit of cutting long words in pieces, even in my native language, many times this exposes the original source of the word against it’s current meaning. In the case of “felháborító”, my first association is “háború” (meaning war), so I am curious how deliberate the choice of this word is in these videos…

Ferenc
Guest

OT – This year’s Earth Overshoot Day Aug.02comment image
The day, by which the human race has used up more natural resources from our earth, than it can replenish in a year – known as Earth Overshoot Day – has been getting earlier for some time. But in 2017, it’s come earlier than ever before.
So this year within 214 days we, the people of this planet, ‘succeeded’ in using all our earth is able to produce in 365 days. In economical terms this means we’re running into bankruptcy, in reality it means we’re now using the environmental credit, we bluntly expect to receive from our children.

petofi
Guest

Here’s a good one:

(picture of Earth from space)–heading: Mars in the past

(picture of Mars, ground level)–heading: Earth in the future

final caption: Global Warming–Believe It.

PENNY OSWALT
Guest

Many Thanks or Gussanan Sapan….all your comments were helpful to me ALL of you gave me insights and information. If you get to America these days without a problem you always have a job doing computer interaction/phone/customer service jobs because of your multiple languages you know. Even though the English language is secondary in Europe. You must learn to print English in sentences and dialog. You will struggle here in the USA if you don’t. For those who are privileged, this goes for you as well. Multiple languages with correct sentence structure and interpretation?ARE few and far between here. I studied French but I got my nouns and verbs reversed, so I suffered in that class. If you get frustrated with us tourists it is equally frustrating across the pond.

Slovak
Guest

The problem with this survey is that it is based on the self-assessment of the respondents. I dont think slovaks are much better off than hungarians in knowing a “real” foreign language, not czech. The number in the survey is 85%, but I think 15% of the respondents just dont consider czech to be a foreign langauge, cause in slovakia 100% of adults know czech, because its so similar. E.g. articles 3 and 4 of the Universal declaration of human rights, slovak: Článok 3. Každý má právo na život, slobodu a osobnú bezpečnosť. Článok 4. Nikto sa nesmie držať v otroctve alebo v nevoľníctve: všetky formy otroctva a obchodu s otrokmi sú zakázané. czech: Článek 3 Každý má právo na život, svobodu a osobní bezpečnost. Článek 4 Nikdo nesmí být držen v otroctví nebo nevolnictví; všechny formy otroctví a obchodu s otroky jsou zakázány.

wpDiscuz