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Why do some expats struggle to learn Hungarian?

Photo : instavirag - Instagram
Why do some expats struggle to learn Hungarian?

When you hang out with a group of expats you can always spot the new arrivals. They’ll be the ones proudly saying they’ll be speaking fluent Hungarian within a few months. You’ll probably laugh to yourself and remember that years ago you’d told yourself the exact same thing. Then you’ll wonder why it is you still can’t do much more than politely greet your neighbour on the stairs at home. You’re not alone – Hungarian is a very difficult language and it can be hard to grasp the basics let alone master it, but you’ll be glad to know it’s not impossible!

Of course it’s not true to say that no one takes the time to learn Hungarian. If you’ve come here for a job, rather than cheap beer and adventure then you might make more of an effort. But even then there are many expats who find the language very difficult, even after having lived in Budapest for many years, here’s why:
It’s the hardest language in the world
Ok it’s a subjective statement, but Hungarian is definitely a hard language to learn. It’s tough because it’s in a different language family from the rest – the Uralic family as opposed to the Indo-European – and so doesn’t share any similarities other than some modern loan words.

What’s so hard about it? Well there are 18 cases for a start and they’re made by adding extra bits to the end of the words, meaning they get long pretty quickly. But there are some easy bits as well. For example plurals just need the letter ‘k’ at the end. Also, there are no genders in Hungarian and just two tenses; past and present. The US Foreign Services Institute says it takes about 1,000 hours to learn Hungarian, so it’s not impossible, it’s just you’ve got to put in the hours.

Everyone speaks English anyway
It might seem that way if you spend all your time at Szimpla, but if you head to a small village in rural Hungary or want to speak to someone of an older generation you might find it much harder. During socialist times learning English was uncommon and people learned Russian instead. While those that live in Budapest or work in tourist or international businesses usually have a fair grasp of English, it might be limited to what they need to get by. If you plan to spend most of your time with the under 30s then you’ll probably be fine; they learned at school and, thanks to EU membership and travel opportunities, have an economic incentive to become more fluent. However, if you plan to explore the country in depth it’s wise to master at least the basics of Hungarian.
The fear of rejection
Some brave people at least make an effort, learning (what they think is) just enough to order a beer. They stride up to the bar, chest forward and confidence high and place their order. The result? A blank stare from a confused bartender and most likely a reply in English.  

This example is maybe an exaggeration, but pronouncing Hungarian correctly is difficult and just a little mistake can leave the word meaning absolutely nothing to a local. And even if they do understand you, they may well choose to answer in English in an attempt to be helpful. This can lead to feeling like it’s impossible to practice the words that you have mastered and fearful of rejection should you wish to try your skills.

But take Ausztrál Tom (“Australian Tom’s”) for example, he’s an Australian guy who’s taken his language-learning to a whole new level in his series of YouTube videos, see this one below where he practices his grammar by writing song lyrics. He’s an inspiration to language-learners everywhere!

It’s hard to find a good teacher
You’ll find plenty of people willing to do a little language exchange and you can probably pick up the basics just fine this this way – but if you want to really master Hungarian you’re going to need a good teacher. Now, unlike English teachers, people with experience teaching Hungarian are a bit rarer and you should expect to pay 3 000 HUF+ for a 1 hour lesson.

Ask around, check cafe noticeboards, ask in some expat Facebook groups, or use a service like Learn Hungarian Now to find a teacher. Just be sure to check out their experience first. Being able to speak a language doesn’t mean they can teach it. The other option is a language school. You’ll pay more but you’ll have the structure of a class to keep you committed in the long term and people around you for mutual encouragement. We’ll be writing about the various language schools soon.

So don’t let another year pass saying the dog ate your homework, Hungarian is a beautiful language and you can do it!

Photo: Learn Hungarian Now