Language cross road
Multilingualism is a major topic on the European agenda. In general, it is an asset that is reserved for smaller countries, with `odd` languages. Large countries like the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and France can afford the arrogance of not caring about foreign languages. Smaller countries cannot. Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Malta, Cyprus and all of Scandinavia depend on their language skills to maintain their positions in the global market. Such need to learn foreign languages could also be expected of Hungary. Located right in the middle of the European Union, bordering all major language groups existent in the EU, it could form an ideal European linguistic cross road. But only the capital Budapest seems to take advantage of that situation.
Hungarian is not part of any of the language groups that the surrounding languages belong to. It does not have Indo-European origins, like the Germanic, Romanic and Slavic languages do. Instead, it is part of the Finno-Ugric language group, which also includes Finnish, Estonian and some exotic Asian languages. However, the resemblance between the Finno-Ugric languages is far too small to make them interchangeable, or even: learning another one of the languages within the group is considered as just difficult as learning German or French, if not more difficult.
`The Hungarian language always places important stuff at the end`
The local language is Hungarian and anybody wishing to get to know more of Hungary than just its capital will have a problem getting by with knowledge of other languages than the local one. Foreign language speakers have all united in Budapest, leaving hardly any of them for the countryside or even the university cities across the country. Beyond Budapest, English is rare, German is not common, Spanish or Italian is very exceptional while Romanian or any Slavic language is almost exotic. Some people do know basics of Esperanto and Latin, but how is that going to get you a loaf of bread at the local bakery?
In Hungary, learning languages is a matter of interest, not a matter of necessity. Beside the call centre industry, which employs many of the people who do speak foreign languages, company owners have only recently adopted language as a selection criterion in their recruitment processes.
As long as the Hungarians do not need to personally interact with the outside world, they will face little problems only speaking Hungarian. Most foreign TV programs are dubbed and so are films. Hungary has a rich history in art and literature, which serves them with lots of information to investigate in their own language. International reading material is translated into Hungarian, up to and including scientific study books required for university studies. Most secondary schools offer English and German but until recently, none of the foreign languages was needed to pass the final exam. Traditionally. only university degrees have been obliged to pass basic language exams. Since that test is almost entirely focused on grammar and theoretical language knowledge, it is by no means a guarantee that anyone who passes the test will be able to use the language in practice.
While Romanian ads used foreign languages almost as status symbols, Hungary has most of its ads in the local language. Many words that could be considered fairly international, do have unrecognizable versions in Hungarian. Restaurants are marked `?tterem` and pharmacies are called `gy?gysz?rt?r`, just to give some examples. Peter (28) tells me that the most frequently used English words in Miskolc are probably `hello` and `OK`. The most widely used Hungarian greeting could have been English too: Szia, which is pronounced as an American see you. Szia can be used in both major greeting moments: when you arrive and upon departure. Many Hungarians translate it into English as 'hello' and they will happy to not only say `hello` when meeting but also when leaving.
Hungarian has some typical features. Ask a Hungarian for his first name, and he will tell you his family name. The Hungarian order of names is opposite to the standard European one, making the family name always coming first, which can lead to confusion similar to what I experienced in Bulgaria: people nodding for no and shaking their had for yes. The `reversed name` formula even applies to streets named after people. `John Smith Street` would become `Smith John Street` in Hungarian.
`Names are not the only words that follow a different order`, says Viktor (28). `Like Finnish and Estonian, we don`t have prefixes, only suffixes, which are usually attached to the word they refer to. In order to make English out of `in my heart`, a slight reshuffle may make the translation easier. The Hungarian version would be `heartmyin`, in one word.` Attaching words can be done with almost no limit. The longest stereotypical word in Hungarian is said to be Megszents?gtelenithetetlens?gesked?seitek?rt. It`s a bit artificial, meaning something like `you can`t afford to be holy`, but it would for sure be impossible to create such a long word in English or French.
The Hungarian alphabet has no fewer than 40 letters, 14 of which are vowels. Accents are abundant: umlauts, single forward accents and double forward accents. Unlike in Greek, they are decisive for the sound of the vowel rather than to locate the emphasis. In Hungary, like in Finland, that`s always the first syllable.
Viktor does not think very high of language education in secondary school. `Most of what you learn is theory. Such was the situation when I was in secondary school. My teacher at one point told me that I had no talent for languages, which was not very motivating either. I probably would have believed her if I didn`t see that the opposite is true. I spent a year studying in Finland, which allowed me to greatly improve my English and even learn some Finnish. And that`s it, if you don`t deliberately choose to use your language skills, you will lose them. Exposure to foreign languages in Hungary is so small that you really depend on your own motivation to make any progress.`
`Hungarians on average are neither very mobile nor very flexible. I think it shows in their foreign language skills. And it also explains why emigration figures in Hungary are at the same level as those of a much smaller country, Slovenia, while unemployment in Hungary is much higher. After the big expansion of the EU in May 2004, Poles flooded the European labour market. Hungarians are only now starting to think about such decisions, while most of the Poles have already returned home from their international adventures`, Viktor says.
Viktor adds that many Hungarians who are unable to express themselves might be ashamed of that, or shy about it: `We do not insist that foreigners learn Hungarian, as long as they come from Western Europe. People coming from poorer countries somehow do need to learn our language. Overall, it`s not a matter of arrogance as it is with the waiters in Paris. Rather than being offended by people who do not speak Hungarian, most Hungarians will praise any single word of Hungarian a foreign visitor is even trying to express. We are not so much used to hearing foreigners speaking Hungarian, so any foreign accent sounds cute to us. Only if some kind of confusion arises, for example when paying in a supermarket, a foreigner may get angry looks for not understanding what the cashier is trying to tell him/her.`
Bea (29) is one of the people who need to speak English on a daily basis for professional reasons. `I work in a call centre for Hungary`s biggest energy supplier. Since English speaking calls will be directed to my team, I cannot do without language skills. Still, it`s quite exceptional that people actually use English in their daily work, even though employers are starting to ask for it more and more. I think that about 40 of my friends and colleagues speak a foreign language.`
Erszebet (20) is taking language courses in English and German. She wants to become a tour guide and is taking 20 lessons a week. When I talk to her, she apologises for being tired and not being able to formulate her thoughts in English as well as she would have liked to. `I think I have already spoken a bit too much today`, she says, adding that she does like both English and German a fair bit.
Viktor (23) speaks English and a bit of Spanish, but he is not regularly using either of them: `I work as a history teacher, and I don`t need any of the two languages for that. It`s been a long time since I spoke English for the last time actually. I think Hungarians are not very good at foreign languages and they have never been. Our parents had to learn Russian during the Soviet times, but like most people, they were quite reluctant to learn it properly. And if they have no family members living in other former communist countries, they have probably forgotten most of it.`
As I learn during the day, Budapest serves as a magnet pulling foreign language speakers away from the rest of the country. Budapest is not just the capital of Hungary ? it is also its major interface with the outside world. Budapest is said to have everything that the rest of Hungary does not have, in both positive and negative ways. I will soon be able to see for myself, as it won`t be long before I get there.
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