‘What is it called in Hungarian?’ – language learners’ adventures with our language 1.
Some of the most vivid memories of my short career as a teacher of English are those moments when, after an incorrectly built reported speech or passive structure, my students sulkingly shut their books and announced how unfair it is that English was chosen as the lingua franca instead of Hungarian. After these theatrical acts, they often continued by posing the rhetorical question of why are they stuck having to struggle with English while the daughters and sons of other countries do not have to make the effort of learning Hungarian.
Although it is true that in proportion, it is impossible to compare those who are learning English in Hungary and those, who, in any corner of the world, take the plunge to learn Hungarian, here are some statistics that prove that our language is not as unpopular with foreigners as we tend to believe.
First of all, some might be surprised by the fact that most sources estimate the number of learners of Hungarian as a second or foreign language to be around 6-7 million. Out of them, 2.5 million live in Romania, 1 million in Slovakia, 700 thousand on the territories of ex-Yugoslavia, 250 thousand in Transcarpathia, 50 thousand in Austria and a further 300 thousand all over Europe. Moreover, Hungarian as a foreign language is taught in almost 80 universities of the world, with the Hungarian courses having an average of 10 students each. Last, but not least, at the moment, 2% of the residents of Hungary are foreigners, a lot of whom also acquire Hungarian at varying levels.
To celebrate 21st February, the International Mother Language Day, let’s get to know some enthusiastic learners of the Hungarian language through this 3-part article series! Let’s talk to them about their language learning motivations, difficulties, experience and the reason why our language is so special to them. But first of all, let’s talk to a teacher of Hungarian as a foreign language about her experience on the topic.
Zsuzsanna Ballai gives Hungarian classes in Szeged to the foreigners who live in the city. Besides, she helps learners of Hungarian all over the world through an online platform where she frequently posts language tasks, games and curiosities and where she gladly answers any questions about the Hungarian language. The service that can be used free of charge is really popular: at the moment, it prides itself with more than 2500 registered members!
First of all, let’s start with a question that most Hungarian people will have probably asked themselves already: why does somebody decide to learn Hungarian?
Basically, I have come across three common motivating factors during my time as a language teacher. Those who belong to the first category are students, attending university here in Hungary. Even though they normally take their classes in English, Hungarian is useful for them in their everyday lives. Often it is their universities that make the learning of Hungarian compulsory for them. For example, at the Medical University of Szeged, foreigners have to take Hungarian classes 3-4 times a week for 4 years.
In the next category are those who have Hungarian roots, but were born abroad. They would like to get to know the culture of their parents or grandparents and they consider learning the language a core part of this process. As they have a strong emotional attachment to the language, they are normally really enthusiastic about learning it.
There is a third category as well. The people who belong to this category do not have Hungarian roots and do not have plans to move to Hungary, but for some reason, become interested in the Hungarian language. A lot of them choose it because of the challenge, while others fall in love with its beauty when coming across a Hungarian song or movie.
What are usually their biggest difficulties when learning Hungarian?
This hugely depends on the mother tongue of the learner as well. Sometimes the difficulties already start with the learning of the alphabet because there are too many new sounds. Double letters, like ’gy’, ’ty’ and ’ny’ are often problematic, too. The word order is the nightmare of a lot of Hungarian learners as well – even though the word order of our language is not as strict as that of other languages, like that of English, learner still have to adhere to a series of rules while building their sentences. Still others’ main difficulty is understanding the difference between subjective and accusative conjugations.
Do you think that Hungarian is as impossible to learn as the public opinion holds?
I do not think so at all. According to linguists, there are two kinds of languages: one group is easy at the initial phases of learning, but gets harder and harder and you progress, while the other group works the opposite way. Although those learning Hungarian might have a harder time during the initial phases as they have to understand a lot more grammatical rules to be able to start using the language for everyday conversations than in the case of other languages, this investment pays off in the later phases.
Normally, what level do foreigners aim for and reach when learning Hungarian?
I have had the luck of teaching a lot of students who reached really good levels during the years even if they normally preferred communicating to focusing on grammar. After a year of four 45-minute classes a week, they are normally able to get by in their everyday lives. They can ask for directions, order in a restaurant and do their daily shopping in the supermarket. Therefore, I would like to advise those who are considering starting to learn Hungarian not to be scared off by the ‘impossible to learn’ label. Hungarian is just as possible to learn as any other language.
In the second part of the article series, language learners talk about why they started to learn Hungarian.