Language is one of the most important components of culture, and as such, i’m doing my best to learn Hungarian during my time here. However, it’s one of the most difficult European languages for a native English speaker to learn because it’s not related to any of the neighboring language groups — Germanic, Slavic or Romance — which between them encompass about 95% of what the rest of Europe speaks. This means that while Hungarian uses the Latin alphabet, that’s about where the similarities end.
Hungarian has 35 different cases, 14 different vowels, and all kinds of throat-y sounds in it’s pronunciation that are difficult for an outsider to get used to. There are also not many cognates in Hungarian, so the likelihood that you’ll be able to look at a sign and make out what it says is highly unlikely. The pronunciation of consonants is also not straight forward for a native english speaker: Hungarians pronounce the “s” as a “sh” and they pronounce the “c” like “ts,” so when you see the name of a city like Miskolc, it’s actually pronounced like “Mish-kolts.”
Learning Hungarian basically began as soon as I walked off the plane, quickly learning that “kijárat” was the Hungarian word for exit as I made my way to pick up my luggage and meet my coworkers. That first night at dinner I practiced saying hello (“szia,” pronounced like the American singer, “Sia”) and thank you (“köszönöm,” pronounced “co-so-nom”) the entire time. I spent my first month and a half in Budapest (pronounced “Buda-pesht”) learning by example. The Roma kids that I work with were thrilled to teach me the colors and numbers so we could play UNO together, and it honestly gave me great practice in a super relaxed atmosphere. The first phrase that I ever learned was a vital one: how to say “I don’t know!” — “Nem tudom” is now a regular phrase that I utter at some point each and every day.
After about five weeks of learning as I went, I began language classes at the Hungarian Language School. My class is made up of six students and our Hungarian teacher and we meet three times a week for two and a half hours each class, for a total of seven and a half hours of Hungarian lessons each week. The class is meant to be an intensive crash course and I can already feel it helping, even though I’ve only been going for a few weeks! Now when I go to the grocery store I can recognize the names of foods in Hungarian and I can hold polite small talk with the cashier that’s checking me out. However, if they deviate from the short script in Hungarian that I have memorized then I’m in trouble and I have to admit to them that Sorry, I’m an American and that’s really all I can say! to which i usually get chuckles and laughs of appreciation at my attempts to speak the language. Some people are less forgiving of my language skills out in public, but on the whole Hungarians seem excited that I’m attempting to learn this new language and assimilate into their country.
I can’t say for sure how adept at Hungarian I will be by the end of my language course, but at least I know I’ll be a bit more confident in my pronunciation and I’ll know the very basics — and that’s good enough for now.