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Hungarians Perplex World With Weird Language Policy

Ann Althouse picks up one of the oddest reports of the week: the Hungarian government wants to discourage students from taking English as their first foreign language because it is so easy!  The original article in The Wall Street Journal is a head-scratcher:

Hungary’s government wants to dethrone English as the most common foreign language taught in Hungarian schools. The reason: It’s just too easy to learn.

“It is fortunate if the first foreign language learned is not English. The initial, very quick and spectacular successes of English learning may evoke the false image in students that learning any foreign language is that simple,” reads a draft bill obtained by news website that would amend Hungary’s education laws.

Instead, the ministry department in charge of education would prefer if students “chose languages with a fixed, structured grammatical system, the learning of which presents a balanced workload, such as neo-Latin languages.”

Besides giving a deceptive sense of achievement, English learning also makes acquiring other languages more difficult, the ministry argues. Reversing the order, on the other hand, makes learning English essentially effortless, it added.

The mystery deepens as the WSJ reporter, Gergo Racz, tells us that Hungary’s real problem isn’t that too many Hungarians take the wimpy way out and learn English; it is that most Hungarians don’t learn any foreign language at all.  In fact, 75 percent of Hungarians say (presumably in Magyar) that they don’t speak any foreign language at all, and only six percent claim to speak one well.

Surely a government in this situation would go for the easiest language on offer?

Few countries need foreign language fluency more than Hungary.  The Magyar language is distantly, very distantly related to Finnish, but otherwise Hungarian is in a world of its own.  A traveler in Europe who has even a smattering of familiarity with a Romance, Germanic and Slavic language will generally get around pretty well; the language roots allow you to decipher some of the basics: words like ‘bookstore’, ‘toilet’, ‘train station’ and ‘trolley’ don’t vary all that much within the language families.  Be able to sound out the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets and you can survive if not always thrive from Vladivostok to Valencia.

In Hungary you can forget that; when I first visited Hungary about twenty years ago, even a word like ‘restaurant’, which is pretty recognizable all across Europe, was no use. The Magyar word for ‘restaurant’ is (if I still remember this correctly) ‘etterim’. At that time, Germany was the English of Budapest, and English was the French.  That is, if you needed to discuss directions or money with a taxi driver or a news vendor, German was the language to use.  If you wanted to talk literature with a journalist or professor, English was the way to go.

Poland was a different case back then.  Everybody over fifty spoke German and everybody under fifty spoke Russian — but given the circumstances attending the introduction of those languages in Poland, nobody wanted to admit a knowledge of either.  Almost nobody spoke English there back then — the Soviets discouraged English study even more than the Hungarians.  If you asked for directions in the former occupation languages people pretended they didn’t understand you; the only way out was to be able to say in both German and Russian, “Excuse me, please.  I’m an American and I don’t speak Polish.  Can you tell me…” and then you ask your question.  Once the ice was broken, people were happy to help.

None of this explains the mysteries of Hungarian language policy; perhaps some Hungarian bureaucrats have a little too much time on their hands?

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  • Vilmos

    It is an impressively stupid policy. For us, Hungarians, our language is the most beautiful cradle and the tightest casket.

    A couple of years ago I asked some of my friends living in Hungary which is the most popular foreign language, and they unanimously said that it is English. German, our “traditional foreign language”, was being left in the dust.


    PS. The word for restaurant is e’tterem (accent on the first e) which more or less translates to food room.

  • Jewel

    At least it isn’t the ruthless goose stepping boot on the throat of the English speaker that Quebec seems to prefer.

  • BigFire

    Well, Hungary does have some mind boggling rules on their books. One of them is the registration tax of $16000 (not a typo) on imported vehicle with engine larger than 3.0 liters.

  • dearieme

    Perhaps a social entrepreneur can persuade them to try Cornish, or Manx Gaelic. Or Basque.

  • Buce

    Can we relate this in any way to the fact (per Wiki) that Prime Minister Viktor Obran was an English major?

  • John Burke

    This is only anecdotal but my wife and I have been to Budapest twice in the past four years. We never encountered any difficulty in finding English speakers — although it was even easier in Vienna and Prague.

  • Old Sailor Man

    Bruce above said
    “Prime Minister Viktor Obran was an English major?”
    What regiment?

  • Bill Butler

    Reminds me of the story Stan Ulam told about the Hungarian scientists working on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in his book, “Adventures of a Mathematician.”

    Seems the story got started that the Hungarians were actually from Mars. Why? They were smarter than everybody else . . . and they spoke a language like no other on Earth.

  • John A

    English is easy to learn? Depends on just what you mean by that statement.

    It is academically the most difficult language, with many and even contradictory “rules” of grammar, pronunciation, etc. No sooner have you learned that the prefix “in-” means “not” than you are confronted with “inflammable.”

    BUT it is, contradictorily (again), the easiest language to learn for conversation BECAUSE its rules are largely ignorable. While a native speaker may be taken aback if the second-language speaker refers to “the house red” it will be understood: a native speaker of French will likely be quite incapable of understanding “la rouge maison,” or a German of “der salz, bitte” vs “das salz, bitte.”

  • joe

    Obviously, I blame the Treaty of Trianon. And the Slovaks.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    As one reasonably comfortable in Hungarian — assorted in-laws there — I think part of the issue is limited time and funds for teaching foreign languages.

    There is a vibrant Hungarian tourist industry whose overwhelming majority of visitors continue to be German-speakers.

    There is also the sense that people are going to pick up English in any case on account of its prevalence in the media and elsewhere so educational resources need not be so heavily applied for English to the detriment of German.

    Should it be an enforced policy? Nem tudom.

    Es, de igen, Vilmos, a Magyarul nagyon szep nyelv van. Szervusz, urom.

  • Independent George

    I’ve heard from my foreign friends that spoken English is very easy to learn, but written English is mind-bogglingly difficult on account of our mish-mash of spelling rules.

  • Vilmos

    English has a couple of features which make it easy to learn. And a couple of … misfeatures also, to make it miserable.

    I like to call English a mosaic language since most of the time the modification of a word is done with another word. For example, the “I go” -> “I would go” difference is expressed with an extra word. Just put words next to each other. Easy to learn and apply. Each English verb has five forms: go/going/goes/went/gone. The Hungarian verb “menni” (go) has maybe 50 forms? Or more? Memorize that!

    Also, in contrast to English’ “mosaicness”, Hungarian and many other languages (German is another bad example) appends more and more endings to the basic word to modify its meaning. The most spectacular example in Hungarian, which one might actually encounter, is “legkiengesztelhetetlenebbeiteknek”, meaning “to the ones among you who are the most impossible to reconcile”.

    Because of this mosaic format, I can easily find a word in a dictionary from a written text. That’s a pretty hard thing to do in Hungarian. On my computer, there is an English word list consisting of almost 100k words. I can imagine that a Hungarian equivalent, with all the different forms of each word, would easily go into the tens of millions range.

    Harmonization is also very prevalent in the language, so it is yet another heavy layer. Also, we emphasize things with the order of the words which makes it hard to describe the proper order.

    On the other hand, we don’t like to “bite away” the end of words, the pronunciation is extremely easy, and one should be able to pronounce a written word after an afternoon of learning and practicing the rules.

    On the other hand, English has the terrible difference between written form and pronoun cation. Each word has to be learnt twice. For example, Tomorrow has three ‘o’ letters, but each are pronounced differently.

    Another “misfeature” of English is … its wide use. I, living in North America, have a hard time understanding Aussie English.

    For us, Hungarians, one of the hardest part of English is the multiple past tenses. (Hungarian has only one). Another is that many words have multiple and completely different meanings.

    But overall, I still think that English is a very easy language due to its mosaic nature. I am happy that English is spreading like wildfire and not a more difficult language. I don’t have to worry about intonation (Chinese), genders (German), harmonization (Hungarian), agglutination (German/Hungarian), etc.

    And one more advantage for English: I can type in English on any keyboard…

    Bart, Udvozlet Kanadabol.


  • Kirk Parker


    Harmonization is also very prevalent in the language,

    Do you mean vowel harmony? Or if not, could you explain a bit more?

    And everyone who has cited English spelling: yes, it’s a bug, but also a feature. I can guarantee you this current (written) conversion would be orders of magnitude more difficult, if each of us where spelling phonetically the way our particular dialects are actually pronounced.

  • Charles R. Williams

    Obviously, the Hungarians should learn Rusyn.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    The first time I went to Hungary to meet all my new in-laws I spoke nary a word of the language. Neither did my wife, since although her father was a ’56er he met and married a Dutch woman. In their home they spoke shitty English to communicate.

    I, however, have an ear for language, and after a couple of weeks could carry on basic conversations in Hungarian. The in-laws began to tease the wife that I spoke better Hungarian than she did. After a month I was very comfortable in the language, though far from perfect.

    We headed out to southwestern Hungary to visit other relatives, and across the gravel road from that family was a vineyard. As an horticulturalist and farmer, I could not resist.

    I’ll admit the conversation was at times quite challenging, since I learnt most of my horticulture in French. Nevertheless, as we looked at each other’s hands we knew we were brothers in a challenging profession.

    Southwest Hungary has a particular dialect, and I had (very recently) learnt the language in Budapest. I then discovered the real reason I was having difficulty understanding the man, though he understood me just fine — he had no teeth! Rural dialect + no teeth = not good for new speaker.

    Happily the guy was an old Nazi — imagine having to choose between Hitler and Stalin — so he spoke fluent German, and when I got into trouble with my nascent Hungarian we could at least fall back on German.

    Seventeen barrels of white wine samples later I figured I still might be able to find my way back across the road … and then he had to share samples of his homemade palinka (=fruit brandies). Plum palinka and pear palinka. Several batches of each.

    By that point we were both speaking Nemarul — Gergarian — and delighting in our common journey as farmers and human beings. If life gets better than that, I’m not sure how.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)


    “legkiengesztelhetetlenebbeiteknek”, meaning “to the ones among you who are the most impossible to reconcile”.

    “For the ones …” nem?

    It beats, but only by five letters, the longest word in English, antidisestablishmentarianism, referring to the political arguments in Britain in regard to the official status of the Church of England, which some seek to “dis-establish”.

  • Jeffrey Marsh

    As I recall, the 1955 edition of the Guinness Book of Records listed as the longest Engilish word “floccinaucinihilipilification”,or alternatively “floccipaucinihilipilification” meaning :”estimating as worthless.” Incidentally,that concept is expressed in Hebrew by the 5-letter word “ביטול” (bittul)

  • Vilmos

    >>Harmonization is also very prevalent
    >> in the language,
    > Do you mean vowel harmony? Or if not,
    > could you explain a bit more?

    Yes. Sorry, I didn’t know the correct name of it.

    Bart, I am impressed that you could carry on some kind of conversation after only a few weeks.


  • Maciek

    I’m Polish and while I don’t agree with the fragment about communist Poland. Although in the early days of the People’s Republic English was rarely taught and for several years almost all the university departments of English were closed down for fear of spreading English-language imperialist propaganda, later English was taught to quite a few people, including my parents and many others who went to school or college in the seventies. Polish universities employed British and American scholars, university libraries ordered books published in the USA and the national English language competition for high school students encouraged them to study English harder. Despite all this, not many Poles spoke English and not many (some 25%) are able to say a word in the language. The educational system is to blame, but it’s a different subject. Anyway, it has nothing to do with discouraging people from learning foreign languages. The idea put forward by the Hungarian government is ridiculous for two reasons: English IS worth learning and it is NOT “too easy” – not having many case endings does not stand for simplicity.

  • AnnyIngram
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