I’m sure the title of this post will have many people doing a double take, but yes you read that right: Hungarian is easy.
Hungarian is not an Indo-European language (i.e. Hindi actually has more in common with English/French/German/Russian etc. than Hungarian does), so it’s very different to all of its neighbours and this gives it the reputation of being among the most challenging languages in the world.
And yes, it can be “hard”. But not because a bunch of people say it is; it only matters what you think if you are taking on the language yourself. There is no such thing as a hardest language, only a “hard” attitude. If you have your filter set to pessimist then you can find many reasons why Hungarian or Spanish or French is “impossible” to learn.
But the way I managed to be able to speak Hungarian in just two months was doing the exact opposite. Much to the frustration of people who I met, who were convinced Hungarian was the hardest language in the world, I would cheerily maintain how ridiculously easy my task was.
This approach meant I had no mental barriers, no nagging doubts in my head, no fears to just say something and make mistakes, I just spoke and let the progress flow enough for me to be able to have genuine friendships entirely through Hungarian.
But rather than repeating an empty mantra of “Hungarian is easy” over and over again, I was genuinely looking for actual aspects of the language that would support this mentality and I am going to share these findings with you in this post in the hopes that other Hungarian learners will ignore the unhelpful discouragement from other learners and even from natives. The time for excuses is over!
Best way to learn it?
If you’re new to this blog you might not have seen me say quite frequently that the best way to gain fluency in any language is to speak it right away. Hungarian does not earn an exception to this rule and get granted the “wait until you’re ready” card.
If you live in Hungary, stop hanging out exclusively with expats and if you would like to get into it from abroad, you should realize that there are thousands of Hungarians signed into language exchange sites frustrated that nobody wants to practise their language with them, just a free Skype call away. Seriously.
Get into speaking it now and have a human being guide you through the feeling of the language! Otherwise you can find podcasts and streamed radio in Hungarian, look up words you don’t know on the free online dictionary Sztaki, and read countless websites and books in the language. One cool blog for example is Öt év – öt nyelv (5 years, 5 languages) run by my friend Bálint, who also translated the Language Hacking Guide entirely to Hungarian (which is part of the multilingual download) for people to use as reading practice.
Otherwise you can use traditional study tools, but don’t dwell too much on these. For books I found Hungarian – an essential grammar to be a useful very technical explanation of the language (not for the faint hearted; unlike most courses there are no pretty pictures or dialogues; it’s pure grammar but explained well) and Colloquial Hungarian is a more natural way to ease into the language with lots of examples in context, and learning essential vocabulary in the right order. I also like to learn via another language and quite enjoyed Assimil’s Le Hongrois de poche in French.
One of the first things you will hear when someone is describing Hungarian to you is that it has “over twenty cases” (exact number depends on the source). This is pure hogwash.
From learning a Slavic language (Czech) and German, I have a pretty good idea what a grammatical case is; Genitive, Accusative, Dative, Vocative etc. and while I have my ways of getting through these (described in the Czech/German guides linked above), they are still quite a lot of work and will slow you down when you are learning a language.
Hungarian’s “cases” are nothing like these. There is almost no complexity to them at all! It’s just a fancy name for “the preposition gets attached to the end of the word”. So while in Czech, any case requires you to know (or at least extrapolate) up to fourteen possible combinations per word (which luckily follow patterns) for each case, Hungarian just has two or three, which are almost always totally obvious.
Seriously; they are just prepositions! You could call it the “dative”, but it’s actually the “to/for”. So in German’s dative you’d need to have the article (dem, der, dem) agree in gender, then modify the adjective ending, and then sometimes get the right ending on the noun, in Hungarian you just add “-nek” or “-nak” to the end. Which one you use only depends on the vowels in the word.
So Csillának adtam egy könyvet is I gave a book to Csilla. “In” Budapest is written as Budapesten. These “cases” don’t influence articles or adjectives and are a short list to learn, which you’d have to learn anyway in other languages as prepositions.
It takes some getting used to when you attach them to the end of the word rather than the beginning, and the only other trick is that if you use a demonstrative (“this” or “that”) it also gets attached to the word this/that. But that’s about it!
(Possessives work in almost the same way; my/your/his etc. get attached to the end of the word instead of before it.)
Stop thinking of them as cases, and just think of them as fancy prepositions and you’ll do fine. They aren’t even that fancy. Think of things like “with John” as “John with” and the challenge suddenly starts to disappear.
Hungarian is an almost perfectly phonetic language.
It takes some getting used to that Sz represents the “s” sound and S alone represents the “sh” sound, the “c” sound is “ts” like in cats (Esperanto and Slavic languages do this too) and “cs” is “ch” (like chair), j is pronounced as “y”, zs is the French j sound like the s in pleasure, the ö and ü (and corresponding longer versions) are different vowel sounds and the famous gy in the language name itself, magyar is also something we don’t directly have in English, but can be pretty accurately approximated by “dy” and “ly” is pronounced as if it was just “y”. The r is rolled like in Spanish.
That’s pretty summarises the most important differences.
Other parts of the phonetics are very straightforward and not strange at all, so you can spell a word when you hear it spoken and pronounce it when you see it written for the first time (unlike in English). Learn the above differences and you’ll do fine. It may seem complicated, but pronouncing based on spelling in French for example is way more complicated.
This follows a very European style of 1st, 2nd, 3rd person singular and then 1st, 2nd, 3rd person plural and strangely enough seems very similar to Spanish or Italian in a lot of ways.
For example, speak is “beszél”, but you speak is “beszélsz” (remember, sz is pronounced “s”), like Spanish’s hablar–> hablas. Because they aren’t actually related, similarities are more coincidental, but they aren’t that far off.
The absolute easiest part of Hungarian conjugation is the fact that it is basically based around just three verb tenses; past, present, future. Any other European language will have past perfect, pluperfect, etc. but it’s more straightforward in Hungarian. All conjugations are very consistent and there are way less irregular verbs than there are in many other languages.
The one thing that does indeed take some getting used to is separating the definite and indefinite conjugation, which doesn’t exist in other European languages. While this is indeed tricky to get used to, the basic premise isn’t that complicated (does the object in the sentence have an “a” or a “the” is the basic question you need to ask yourself), and even if you mess up while you are learning, Hungarians will always understand you.
Like in any language, you are required to study a few tables to get the gist of how conjugations work, but I find the complexities in Spanish’s conjugation to be much more diverse and found Hungarian’s to be very logical and predictable, even after taking “exceptions” into account.
4. NOUN GENDERS
Oh sorry, Hungarian doesn’t have grammatical genders. So there are no extra ways to learn how to say “the”, no adjective or case agreement to worry about and no memory techniques required to make sure you aren’t using the wrong one.
Verdict: way too easy
Hungarian is pretty much as good as English here! English uses ‘s’ (dogs), Hungarian uses ‘k’ (kutyák). If the noun ends in a vowel then it gets an accent and if it’s a possessive, it becomes an i before the ending possessive letter. That’s about it.
Verdict: Child’s play
This is what usually intimidates people the most; since it’s an unrelated language it simply has too many words that are totally different.
DIFFERENT WAYS TO FORM WORDS
Usually if someone wants to really intimidate you, they’ll give some obscure term that shows how big the words can get, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Keep in mind that prepositions and possessives go at the end, but get attached to the word rather than coming with a space. It’s like in English if we said friendsmywith instead of “with my friends”. It takes some getting used to, but it’s not that bad.
Keep in mind that it’s just a different way to think about forming words. When you immediately go to cry-baby mode and complain about how it’s not the same as in English, then you’re missing the point entirely. You’re learning a foreign language because it’s different! If everything was the same as English it wouldn’t be a foreign language.
Go with the flow rather than crying about it. Accepting the differences rather than constantly complaining about them is the best way to get through them quicker.
Words have a vowel agreement structure that actually helps with the musicality of the language. This was a little easier for me to get used to because Irish has a similar vowel agreement structure in spelling words, but it’s very logical. It’s different and takes some getting used to, but the basic rules behind it are easy.
HUNDREDS OF WORDS YOU ALREADY KNOW
I like to remind people when they take on any language that they are usually starting with hundreds or thousands of words already; it’s impossible to start any language off from absolute scratch because there are always some features that resemble whatever you are coming from, especially vocabulary.
Hungarian is no exception. It may be from a different language family, but being located in Europe means it took on many loan words from its neighbours and if you familiarise yourself with this list you’ll have a nice wee head start.
Keeping in mind that the spelling changes to be true to Hungarian phonetics, you’ll certainly recognise these words: alkohol, analízis, asztrológia, bank, busz, kategória, kombináció, kommunizmus, dizájn (pronounced precisely the same as “design”), dráma, elefánt, feminista, idióta, liberális, magazin, misszió, neutrális, opera, park, pesszimista, placebó, probléma, szex, sport, stratégia, stressz, taxi, toalett, turista, tradíció…
The list could go on and on, and it does! When I was getting help in Hungarian from Káta, we kept noting such words and compiled a list of almost 500 of them. You can see that in this PDF (click to view directly on the site or Right Click/control, Save As to read through it later.)
While this is a great start to get you into the flow of saying something, they are clearly not the more typical words you would be using, but those are formed with incredible consistency.
WORD FORMATION IS VERY STRAIGHTFORWARD
When you have a good memory technique, learning all the new vocabulary will come much easier to you. But the good news is that you will start to see patterns that make it much easier to assimilate new vocabulary as you encounter it.
Words are formed by adding a host of predictable prefixes and suffixes, which means that once you learn a base word you have way more flexibility to create words based on that than you ever do in English or other languages.
For example: szent is “holy” or “saint” (pronounced the same). Szentség is holiness/sanctity (adding the noun-forming suffix –ség ‘-ness’). Szentségtelen is impious/sacrilegious (addition of the adjective-forming suffix –telen ‘un-‘). Megszentségtelenít is defile/profane (addition of verb-forming suffix –ít, i.e. “to make something do something” and coverb meg (usually indicating a completed action) which is used very frequently in the language in such situations).
If you see words like impious or defile in English there is no way you could simply figure out what they mean. But learning a very small number of prefixes and suffixes in Hungarian (a great list and explanation is given in “Hungarian – An essential grammar” linked above) will exponentially increase your potential in forming and understanding words, and this reduces your workload dramatically.
For example, –ász or –ész is added to verb stems to form occupations. So épít = build, építész = architect, gyógy- = cure, gyógyász = doctor, hal = fish, halász = fisherman, nyelv = language, nyelvész = linguist, szín = scene, színész = actor. This is way more versatile than English, and once you have learned the small ways to change words, and learn some basic core vocabulary, you have an instant set of thousands of words!
Start as you mean to go on
There’s no way I can summarise an entire language in a relatively short post like this, but that’s not the point. Of course you can retort this with a list of reasons why Hungarian is hard, but there’s no need – that’s what pretty much every language course does anyway!
On top of that, trying to prove any particular language as the hardest serves no purpose whatsoever beyond mental masturbation for linguists, or pride for native speakers. If you are learning the language anyway for cultural heritage, living in the country, or because you genuinely want to then who cares how it stands relative to other languages?
Seeing nothing but the differences and hard points is a bogus way to look at a language. It does absolutely nothing to help you.
When you focus on how impossible it is, you are setting yourself up for failure. Calling a language hard is a self-fulfilling prophecy of you finding more and more evidence to support that theory (and you will find it I’m sure), getting discouraged, and not being able to speak because of this. It’s not the difficulties themselves causing the problem, it’s your mentality towards them!
Start on the right foot and focus on points like those above. When you come to something difficult, take it in your stride and accept that at first you won’t be able to say it perfectly. There are many ways to speak a language from day one without being an expert in it, and you can indeed get by pretty well in the language in no time when you have a positive attitude to it.
And more importantly, I can tell you from experience that Hungarians are very appreciative of people learning their language and will always encourage you and help you, and will be patient with you as you make mistakes.
So what do you think, Is Hungarian easy? Of course, any language takes many years to master perfectly, but there is nothing stopping you from trying to get by in it and to live parts of your life through it. Nothing but your own doubts.
Let me know what you think in the comments!