How I learned Hungarian

“Are you Hungarian?” That is the #1 question I get when people hear what I do for a living. The answer is, of course, no. I’m American, born and raised. (Otherwise I’d translate *from* English, right?) The usual follow-up to that is always, “Well, isn’t Hungarian a hard language to learn?” Yes and no.

Hungarian is really a very logical language, once you get past the weird new sounds and syntax. There are very regular rules to follow, so that, if you know one word, you can actually say you know about twenty—the base word, and the related verb, adverb, adjective, possibility of X, impossibility of X, and so on. That said, there are some big start-up costs to learning Hungarian, time-wise. It took me a good 2 months to tune my ear to the sounds, and another 2 months to get my tongue in shape to produce the sounds consistently. Some of them are quite a workout for your mouth muscles. You certainly won’t learn this language overnight!

First, I bought Routledge’s Colloquial Hungarian book and CD (an older edition of what is linked here—I started almost 10 years ago now!). Fun fact: at the time I bought the set, I had no clue what “colloquial” even meant. Erika Solyom and Carol Rounds write beautifully; it is really apparent how much they love the language. I listened to the first track of their audio aid (the alphabet) for about a month solid, sometimes repeating after the speaker, sometimes not. Then, I went through the first couple sections attempting to pronounce the words, then listening to the “teacher.” Only after I started getting some of these new words correct did I jump into the typical phrases (Hello, how are you? I’m fine. Today is nice…) Does this sound painful to you? But I swear, it was so helpful getting a good basis established!

After this “warm-up” period, I traveled to Hungary. It was my first time overseas, ever. Talk about nerve-wracking! Add to that discomfort a host family with a (wonderfully) wicked sense of humor—lots of teasing, lots of jokes—and teenage me found herself tongue-tied in any language for a while. My host mom later told me she thought I was “special” at first, because of a nervous habit I had of twisting my hands around to find the right word to use. Oy! What was I doing, trying to pluck the right phrase out of the air?

Going to a Hungarian high school helped loads. My classmates were all in the English language track, but none of them wanted to speak much English with me. Hungarian was our gossip mode of choice. I learned to talk about boys, buy chocolate rolls (csokis csigák) at the canteen, go to the movies, and ditch class in Hungarian pretty quick. Ha! Not to mention the other important things: getting a pre-paid phone plan and recharge cards, taking the bus and train, finding the restroom… The usual stuff.

The program I went overseas with was kind enough to pay for language lessons in a small group of exchange students twice a week at first, then once a week for a little while. The formal studies (grammar, conjugation, etc) coupled with the informal learning made it so much easier! Our teacher taught us a lot of useful things at first, and then started adding in school vocabulary (themes like “occupations,” “at the office,” and so on). She took us on little field trips sometimes, and gave us homework. I kept a few notebooks of words I overheard, too.

Eventually I felt comfortable venturing into longer texts—short newspaper articles at first. My host dad made it a point to have me read the daily joke out loud to him, and he would patiently explain what it meant (in Hungarian, using dictionaries when needed). We did this pretty much every night for about six months. I’ll never forget the day I read the joke out loud, and didn’t laugh. He asked, “Did you understand? Let me explain.” I replied, “No, no, I understood. It’s just not funny!” After that, I started working out the longer articles, then short poems, then books. By month 10 or so, I was able to finish a book and talk about it some.

When I got back home, I did my best to keep up with friends and host family in their language via email or Skype. I read through online newspapers occasionally. And when I wanted to get into translation more seriously, I made a concerted effort to build up key vocabulary sets. And that’s all she wrote! It takes some work, but it’s worth it. I sincerely encourage you to try it!

How did you learn a foreign language? Have you ever tried to learn a “tough” one? What did you think of the process?


One thought on “How I learned Hungarian

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Carolyn. It sounds like you learned Hungarian the way I learned German and the way anybody learns a language as an adult (or an almost-adult): with a whole lot of determination and a little help from many supportive friends who speak the language.

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