Learning English ‘Too Easy’ For Hungarian Students

Hungary Students English
Hungarian students: too good for English.

[credit provider=”flickr / Ken Owen” url=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/neonzu1/6042002191/”]

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 Origo.hu 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 per cent of Hungarians say (presumably in Magyar) that they don’t speak any foreign language at all, and only six per cent 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 traveller 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 20 years ago, even a word like ‘restaurant’, which is pretty recognisable 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 50 spoke German and everybody under 50 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?

This post originally appeared at The American Interest.