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My first weeks in Budapest: Hungarian mission update

| 40 comments | Category: mission, travel

It’s been a few weeks since I arrived in Hungary and got my teeth into my latest mission. I had a bumpy start, but got over it and am on schedule towards my end goal! So it’s time for a mission update! :)

Starting with grammar: great in theory, but not useful for speaking

Since I started this new mission while I was still doing my input experiment, I wanted to wrap it up by seeing if starting to learn a language purely by studying grammar had any benefits to it. I usually start learning with phrasebooks and it has been very helpful for me to speak quicker in the past. I wanted to see if a better understanding of the structure of a language would make a positive impact, especially considering how different Hungarian’s grammar is to other languages I know.

Unfortunately, it didn’t help at all for communicating in the language, since I was totally missing the words and phrases I need to say things. I should have known this after everything I’ve said about too much study but it was worth a try for the purposes of experimenting. I’m always up for refining my learning approach, but in this particular case I’ll stick with what I know works in future!

This was supposed to just be for the last two weeks while in Berlin, but the disadvantage of starting to study grammar is you see all the bits you don’t know and need to keep studying to fill in the extra missing pieces. I actually enjoy learning grammar believe it or not – I find it interesting, especially due to my more technical background as an engineer… even if some grammar points don’t actually help me speak immediately, so they are pretty much worthless from a short-term conversational point of view.

This meant that for several weeks, I was stuck just learning how Hungarian grammar worked! I didn’t spend this time on it because it was “hard” – I would only actually put a few hours into it when in Berlin (wanted to enjoy the city while I could!), and while at an Esperanto conference in Pécs south of Budapest. So the first three weeks were actually a very inefficient ten or so hours of total work. Not a good start, especially considering my looming deadline!

All the focus on grammar did have one big advantage though, which has been helpful in taking on what I was told was one of the world’s hardest languages – I have a very particular way of tackling a language, which involves being a constant positive filter to all information that comes my way and I applied this to Hungarian to see what could be easy in it and found many answers!

This has meant that I have “gotten over” this supposedly worst part of the language already and can very confidently talk anyone down who dares to suggest that Hungarian is hard ;). I have a list of many reasons – they have never met the likes of me :P

Why German is easy

I did the same with German and found many reasons to consider the language easy. This attitude was one of the main reasons I was successful in making enough progress to pass the majority of the C2 exam, even though I considered German to be very hard the first time round when I learned it in school. I have gathered many of these reasons together and written another guide which I will be releasing on Thursday.

When beginner to intermediate learners who are currently struggling with German will read it, they will see German in a new light. It will be called Why German is easy and include different e-book formats as well as several important extra files. The price will be $29 for the first version, but anyone who has already bought or buys the Language Hacking Guide by Thursday will get e-mailed a discount to get it at $19 (as well as an update to the Language Hacking Guide itself: a 55 minute interview with polyglot Stu Jay Raj).

I think both guides would work excellently together as one is about the entire learning strategy that helps me speak languages quicker and the other will be about getting around grammar and vocabulary issues specifically found in German, so that the language becomes easier. More on that on Thursday though!

Speaking milestones in Hungarian

After the event in Pécs, I have been living in Budapest for a total of two weeks now. I tried to dive straight into vocabulary, but kept going back to the grammar book for some closure to try to finish it; it’s interesting, and giving me more reasons to say that Hungarian really isn’t that bad… but it wasn’t helping me speak!

I went to some Couchsurfing meetings and could successfully talk several people down who would try to fill me with doom and gloom about my chances of this mission being a success, based on facts from the language itself (which I’ll elaborate on some time later), however… I was doing it in English! Definitely not part of the core of what has helped me in languages in the past.

Arguing quite well about how easy Hungarian is… but still not being able to talk my way out of a cardboard box in the language itself kind of made most of my arguments moot. Studying too much grammar turned me into a theoretician!

Luckily I’ve been getting through the words and phrases and one week ago had my first spontaneous five minute conversation with someone entirely in Hungarian. A big struggle to bring all the new vocabulary to the surface and construct the sentences in the completely different way, as well as attempt to figure out what was being said to me, but I made it and was happy for it. But I didn’t stop there…

On Friday I went out with some Hungarians and spent two hours conversing in the language (in a noisy bar no less, with my drink of choice as always). Of course, I am extremely limited in my scope of vocabulary so I used all my usual tricks to keep the conversation flowing, and spoke every single word of Hungarian that I had learned up to then. I did need lots of words to be translated to me, but most of the conversation was in Hungarian. They enjoyed talking to me and told me my Hungarian is really good considering the short time I’ve been here.

What I am really happy about is that I can honestly say that my main problem with Hungarian is just that I need to put the work into learning vocabulary. Even the vocabulary itself is not that bad at all, since it follows very logical rules – I just need to work at it and learn the basics and essentials as quickly as possible. I am already used to the sound of the language and the grammar was not bad at all when you look at it the right way. Most of my non-speaking work will be expanding on my vocabulary using SRS and image association, and using as much of it as possible with people.

So despite the very slow start, I am actually exactly on schedule! My current level is struggling to get by in real conversations, but just about making it – this is way below the level of confident conversation I am hoping to reach by October, but I’m on track!

Life in Budapest

Just before heading down to Pécs, I had one day in Budapest and took the whole day to flat hunt. I’ve done this many times in new cities and have learned how to find the right place for me quickly. In the end I decided to go for a gorgeous modern apartment between Váci utca (a famous street in Budapest) and the Danube. I can see both from my window! This is pretty much right in the centre of touristy Pest.

Despite the ideal location and huge amount of space I have to myself, with an entire spare bedroom for my Couchsurfers, and two air-conditioners etc. My rent here is less here than what it was for my place in Berlin and in many other cities I’ve lived in. Travelling to interesting locations for a few months does not require you to inherit a fortune.

I’ll make a video of my gorgeous flat later this week and post a link up on the site’s Facebook page (like it to see that in your News Feed).

Most people recommend you go out to live in a hidden corner or village for language immersion, but I like to be in the middle of the action. There are more English speakers here than anywhere else in the country, but that just makes the challenge even more fun ;). A short walk or tram ride brings me to cheap vegetarian places to eat and where locals hang out.

Since I was on schedule by last week, it meant I could take the last week to focus on writing the German guide based on the notes I had made over four months in Berlin. When that is released into the wild (and hopefully gives me enough sales to cover my next flight!) I can focus on making swift progress in the language over the next seven weeks. I can also get back to writing more actively on the blog since I have been down to a post a week recently while I settled in. I’ve got some fun stuff planned for September! :D

I’ve been making several friends – the majority of whom are Hungarian, and they have all been very encouraging and extremely helpful, especially when they see how serious I am about learning their language. I really like this city and can already tell I’ll be disappointed to leave it in October! (As a side note: Hungarian girls are ridiculously gorgeous!)

I haven’t really gotten to know the city yet as I never try to see everything in my first weeks. From this weekend I’ll be investing more time into living and socialising through Hungarian and spending as much time as possible out and about, since I feel I’ve studied it enough. I will spend most of my time learning vocabulary on the tram on my way to meeting up with people :)

Any thoughts on my first weeks in Hungary? Hit me up with your comments below!

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  • balint

    Welcome and thanks for the kind words about Hungary :D Looking forward to meet you! Keep up the good work!

  • Jon Mahoney

    I’m very happy to hear you’re going to be using SRS this time! I love it! It makes me happy everyday!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    It’s very very useful – I can’t believe I only discovered it this year!!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Sure, see you next week Balint!

  • http://www.wwwilsonw.com Wilson Hailey

    I’m quite excited to see your progress and results on this one. Your learning strategies have caught my attention, because they ring true with how I learn and how I teach, but I still have my doubts in a few areas. I’m sold on everything except for the short time period and the claim of universal ease of all languages, well, more precisely, the two combined. If, in two months or so, you are as satisfied with your level of Hungarian as with any other language you’ve previously studied, then I’m completely sold!
    Also, forgive me for the delay on your translation into Chinese :P

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Thanks Wilson. I’m looking forward to see what you two come up for the Chinese translation!
    The short time period is not about me doing anything special – it’s just more intensive. People saying they “learned language x for 5 years” are kidding themselves. Working for a couple of hours a week doesn’t count – I live my life entirely through the language. Even expats protect themselves in a bubble that slows them down.
    The ease of languages depends on attitude. When you go into it convinced that it’s easy and find more proof to back that up, you’ll make very fast progress. You’ll see how far I get in Hungarian despite its very different linguistic background to other languages I know ;)

    • http://www.wwwilsonw.com Wilson Hailey

      What thoughts do you have on the psychological effects of total, utter, complete immersion?

      I have personally noticed a few unexpected “language barriers” (more like just barriers) involved in prolonged immersion. One being the loneliness that comes from not being able to communicate with natives on as deep a level as one is used to. Another phenomenon is how one’s accent grows faster than anything else (you’re right, tones really aren’t that terrible). This brings the double-edged sword of natives treating you and talking to you like a native. When you context teaches you new vocabulary, it’s wonderful. When context flies right by you, or you inadvertently create a context quite different from what you had imagined with your word choice, it becomes a huge problem. You are trading in the chance to be corrected as a foreigner for the chance to be treated like a native.

      Even now, I am facing a completely different challenge: entering a presviously unexplored expat scene and finding myself rather unable to communicate with other English speakers.

      These are just thoughts and challenges that I’ve personally been kicking around for a while now. I would love to hear your take :)

  • http://twitter.com/bbelderbos Bob Belderbos

    Hi Benny,

    Very interesting blog. It’s fascinating how you manage to learn all these languages. I think goal setting is amazingly powerful. I also think you attract things according to how you think (see The Secret): be positive and self-confident and all flows your way.

    I learn more programming languages than spoken languages these days, but it’s similar: you have to go trough syntax (grammar) stuff and then write (speak) and correct (debug) it. I am settings some tough targets now, but it seems to get rid of clutter like email,news and (some) tweets.

    Keep us posted.. very inspiring stuff.

    Cheers Bob

  • M.C.

    Fascinating, as always, Benny. I’m looking so forward to your German guide!!

  • Christopher

    One tip for learning grammar is to find out what parts of the language even natives have trouble with, and then mark those off your list of things to worry about for the time being. Also, knowing which words are commonly misspelled (or misused altogether) can help with pronunciation and usage worries. For example, Danish can drive you crazy trying to hear expected subtle distinctions in bizarrely spelled words. Knowing how those words are misspelled can give you confidence that there is no hidden distinction to worry about!

  • http://www.MyBeautifulAdventures.com/ GlobalButterfly

    Can’t wait to see what your place looks like and that’s great about the veggie place so close! :)

  • Anders Carlos

    Hi Benny,
    Would you tell us how many words you usually learn per day using SRS method?
    I am a German student and I consider myself in an intermediary level but I think I don’t have a good vocabulary and it’s very hard for me to find a German person to talk, so I have to learn using books and in a language school and it’s difficult to know how many words I should learn everyday to build a good vocabulary.

  • chris

    Hey Benny,

    I purchased your language hacking guide, and to say it is great, helpful and insparational is an understatement. Glad to hear that your hungarian is coming along. I am working on my spanish, trying to get to a place where I am confidant enough in the language to say ok I got it down enough to start on a different one.
    How do you generally access your readiness to start another language? Any of your insights would be greatly appreciated.
    Also, I don’t know if you would be interested or not, but I thought another candidate for an interview about language acquisition might be Tim Ferriss, author of the Four Hour Work week, as he is a polyglot himself. I checked out his web site, and he had some interesting things to say in regards to learning a language, and reactivating languages that you have not spoken for a while.
    I know that it has been too long since I posted a comment, but just wanted to say thank you Benny, for all your insights and posts on language acquisition, you are a true inspiration to all of us trying to learn a language, or languages!
    The sky is the limit right. ( I am curently working tword being able to sit the c2 examine in november in spanish, although I don’t think I am near ready enough.)

    Nos hablamos pronto. Chris

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Glad you liked it! Goals are everything.
    I like the programming language metaphor! I always tell people that my engineering background has given me a huge advantage over linguists ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    You’ll see it available tomorrow :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Yeah, I eat there every day! You’ll probably see the video on the Facebook page on Friday ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    That’s precisely what I do – I like to call it my “triage” of priorities ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    I don’t know how many I’d learn per day. I’m definitely not a consistent numbers-based learner ;) I take out my Android phone and study on the tram or when waiting for lunch if at a restaurant etc. I use up as much time as I can, but I rarely have a proper consistent session.
    I find focusing on numbers to be counterproductive for my own personal learning strategy. I know it would work for many other people though.
    You have an Internet connection so it definitely is NOT very hard for you to find a German to talk to! Go to livemocha and busuu – skip their miserable courses and go straight for language exchanges. Loads of Germans/Austrians/Swiss ready to chat :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Hi Chris!
    Thanks a lot for the shining review of the LHG. Great to see how much you are enjoying it and finding it useful :)
    The way I assess my readiness to start another language is as follows: I see if I have a pulse. If I do, then I’m ready (i.e. you should be ready from day one – as you’ll see in the guide that’s when I recommend starting to speak etc. ;)
    Actually, I contacted Tim Ferriss back in April when I was carrying out the other interviews. It took his ASSISTANT six weeks to get back to me :P Since he was busy writing his new book he has little time this year for non-essential interviews. I am sure our paths will cross some time and I’ll get to pick his brains!
    Best of luck with your C2 and your comments are always welcome here ;)

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    “As a side note: Hungarian girls are ridiculously gorgeous!”

    Side note my ass, that was the most useful piece of information in the whole post! :P (which is not in any way disparaging the other information there, mind you)

    I’m with you on the grammar at this point. I’ve tried both methods with Spanish AND Japanese so far, and I’m very much on the speak-speak-speak side of the fence. You really do learn grammar as you go along, you might not be able to give a formal explanation of it using the proper technical terms, but you KNOW it, does that make sense? In other words, you know how to correctly use the language, you just can’t properly explain the structure (grammar) of it using the correct terms such as “case”, “preposition”, “subject”, “object”, etc. Most native speakers can’t even do this with their own language (I can’t do it with English).

    As a matter of fact, if you’ll pardon my pimping…I’ve got a post that I just recently wrote up on exactly that (like the cartoon? :D ) here: How Much Grammar and Syntax Terminology Do I Need to Know?

    Randy then immediately thereafter wrote a post saying exactly the opposite and we had an interesting (though perfectly civil) discussion about it in the comments (and I see you far out-did me as you’ve got a half-dozen or so comments in that whole thread :D ).

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • Anonymous

    Benny, I am a long time reader and first time poster. I see your site was on the Houston Chronicle Blog as one of the best sites that people may not know about. See here http://tinyurl.com/2dorms6

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Glad to see you agree! :) I imagined Randy’s post was in part inspired by yours. As you can imagine I’m siding with you on this ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Glad to see you agree! :) I imagined Randy’s post was in part inspired by yours. As you can imagine I’m siding with you on this ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    I’m not sure if I know what you mean by “total utter complete”. I always apply immersion, but it’s in capital cities where English is abundant even if I don’t use it. I used it a little in Budapest for my first week, but since I’ve gone through much more intensive immersion before I know how to make the adjustment even without the same pressure.
    Although I like the way you described it – you know you’ve made it when they treat you like a native. I know I still have work to do if people compliment me on my language skills (rather than just communicating with me in the language). I am pleased that I have gone beyond this in several languages. Spaniards I hung out with in Berlin said they loved spending time with me because it was “like being back home”.
    Since I have gone through these cultural and mental mindsets it means that, to be honest, I don’t find English speakers so interesting any more and much prefer to spend my time with other cultures. But I encourage this mindset as it helps me with my missions, so I don’t know how much of it is forced and how much is natural :P

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    I’m not sure if I know what you mean by “total utter complete”. I always apply immersion, but it’s in capital cities where English is abundant even if I don’t use it. I used it a little in Budapest for my first week, but since I’ve gone through much more intensive immersion before I know how to make the adjustment even without the same pressure.
    Although I like the way you described it – you know you’ve made it when they treat you like a native. I know I still have work to do if people compliment me on my language skills (rather than just communicating with me in the language). I am pleased that I have gone beyond this in several languages. Spaniards I hung out with in Berlin said they loved spending time with me because it was “like being back home”.
    Since I have gone through these cultural and mental mindsets it means that, to be honest, I don’t find English speakers so interesting any more and much prefer to spend my time with other cultures. But I encourage this mindset as it helps me with my missions, so I don’t know how much of it is forced and how much is natural :P

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Wow – I didn’t see that, thanks for sharing :) (Google Alerts tells me about half of the links on the net that point to me, but it missed this one!)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Wow – I didn’t see that, thanks for sharing :) (Google Alerts tells me about half of the links on the net that point to me, but it missed this one!)

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    I feel bad now, like we’re picking on him or something :D

  • http://www.toporlandotraveldeals.com/ Mary Jane

    Thank you for sharing this experience of your in Budapest, you really had a lot of things to say. I think you still had some hard time out there but you did it! :)

  • Klaudia

    Hi Benny, found you at cauchsurfing. Your determination, passion and the whole project is quite impressing. And you are right in so many points. And I have never met somebody who speaks esperanto. Crazy guy!

  • Klaudia

    Hi Benny, found you at cauchsurfing. Your determination, passion and the whole project is quite impressing. And you are right in so many points. And I have never met somebody who speaks esperanto. Crazy guy!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Thanks! Glad to see people I met in the real world commenting ;)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Thanks! Glad to see people I met in the real world commenting ;)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Thanks! Glad to see people I met in the real world commenting ;)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

      Thanks! Glad to see people I met in the real world commenting ;)

  • Klaudia

    Hi Benny, found you at cauchsurfing. Your determination, passion and the whole project is quite impressing. And you are right in so many points. And I have never met somebody who speaks esperanto. Crazy guy!

  • Klaudia

    Hi Benny, found you at cauchsurfing. Your determination, passion and the whole project is quite impressing. And you are right in so many points. And I have never met somebody who speaks esperanto. Crazy guy!

  • Anonymous

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  • kemeng

    Kéz és lábtörést:)

  • http://www.mattbowlby.com/ Matt Bowlby

    What happened to this mission? I don’t see any further posts or video about it. Did Hungarian prove too difficult indeed…?