It’s time for a new 3 month language mission!
Since I started the blog about a year ago, I’ve learned pretty good Czech in 2 months, convinced some Brazilians that I was a Carioca, got by in Thai, and just recently passed 4/5 of one the hardest formal examinations in German.
So now it’s time to take on one of the toughest challenges yet: Conversational Hungarian in 3 months!
Hungarian: a non-Indo-European language
Before the Chinese/Japanese etc. learners jump on me for lazily taking on another “European” language, there’s something you should be aware of…
Hungary may be situated in Europe, but its language has almost nothing in common with any of the many European languages surrounding it (apart from a distant relationship to Finnish/Estonian)!
Many even think of Hungarian as being among the hardest languages in the world. One way a speaker of other European languages could perhaps come to that conclusion is that it is not an Indo-European language.
This basically means that English/French etc. have more in common with Romanian, Polish, Swedish, Lithuanian, Sanskrit and Persian than they have in common with Hungarian. Not just the very occasional vocabulary outside of direct family branches, but also the sentence structure can be somewhat familiar in these languages. It doesn’t make your job a huge amount easier, but at least it gives you some sense of familiarity, and I found this when learning Czech.
Apart from rare loan words, Hungarian seems to show nothing in common with its neighbours! Luckily it uses the Latin script (but so do Swahili, Turkish and Vietnamese…), but unluckily it seems to pack enough grammar into its sentences to make your head spin. Forget German’s four grammatical cases, or Russian’s six – Hungarian nouns can have up to eighteen cases!
I’m certainly going to miss prepositions - in, at, to etc. since these seem to get merged into the word as a “postposition” as one of many ways that Hungarian can produce extremely long words such as “megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért“.
It’s a phonetic language, but it still has some things that will take some getting used to! ‘s’ is the ‘sh’ sound and ‘sz’ is the ‘s’ sound (the opposite of Polish), and the ‘g’ in the name of the language itself, magyar, is pronounced like a d!
Sound intimidating enough yet?
3-month mission: conversational Hungarian
I got all of the above information just from the Wikipedia article on Hungarian this afternoon for the sake of providing a summary. I am starting to learn the language from scratch as of today.
The only word in Hungarian I’ve learned so far is “Szia” (“hi”, pronounced see-ya apparently). So yes, this is absolutely from scratch with no similar or even distantly related language to act as my crutch.
My target is to reach conversational level in the language by mid-October. My mission is to take the intimidating message of the above paragraphs and to turn it around completely to find out what’s easy about Hungarian, to the point where I can effectively communicate in social situations with natives in the language, and of course, share my discoveries with you all!
I don’t want to sit any tests, spend hours watching TV shows or listening to the radio or reading, and I definitely don’t want to have my head in books studying grammar and vocabulary the entire time. I want to talk with Hungarians and attempt to have a social life almost exclusively through the Hungarian language.
I have no doubts that my usual tricks will come in very useful and that I will be able to communicate in some way quite quickly. However, I should specify exactly what I’m aiming for so there is no confusion! It won’t be fluency this time, but I do want to be able to converse.
Before I hop my flight out of Budapest on October 14th (just in time to fly south for the winter!) I want to be able to meet Hungarian natives I have never met before and have a casual conversation about a wide range of typical things people talk about at social events, with no preparation. I am allowing myself to make mistakes, as long as what I’m saying is totally understandable, and my focus will be on conversations I am involved in.
I’ll also aim to make a video or two in Hungarian before I leave so you can all hear what I sound like!
Trying out this “preparation” thing you all love so much
This target will be similar to the “pretty good” level I reached in Czech. The reason I’m aiming for about the same level (rather than fluency) is because I will actually have slightly over two months of proper immersion rather than three.
Rather than diving straight in, studying on the flight over, and speaking consistently from day one of the mission (which I know from experience works really well), I am going to give myself just over 2 weeks to prepare (while still in Berlin) and study some material (both from books and online). These two weeks may ultimately hurt my potential progress (especially since it won’t be full time – I’m still in recovery mode from the exam!), but now that I’ve had a chance to improve my study technique, I want to see if there is any benefit at all to this “preparation” thing you all seem to be raving so much about!
Two weeks not speaking the target language is already longer than I would usually go for, but it’s worth a try to see if it does indeed help to focus on absorbing as much as possible first.
This easing in period will be further extended, as I’ll spend my first week in Hungary in a town called Pécs just south of Budapest with some Esperanto speakers (at an event filled with fun young party-goers, called IJS). There will be some cultural adjustments to make in Hungary (etc. figuring out how to eat well in a country that doesn’t show much promise for vegetarians) and I’d rather be with friends and have some chances to communicate fully with the many Hungarians at the event (I’ve been told that Hungarians generally don’t speak much English or other languages), before I start full immersion a week into August.
That first week will also give me a chance to get to know some Hungarians who normally live in Budapest so that I can expand my social circle – of course they’ll all be convinced to speak just Hungarian with me after that first week!
Living in Budapest
The reason I choose particular destinations for my language missions, is less due to marking my territory among pompous linguists, and way more due to the actual destination and the people where I travel to. I consider myself much more of a nomad than a language learner and the social rewards of spending time almost exclusively with locals is mostly the reason why I am always so keen to make sure I can converse with them.
Budapest has long been on my list of places to visit, and there’s no way I could give a city with its reputation any less than a few months! I can’t wait to get to know it and discover what experiences await me – especially by discovering it through the people from the city itself. My “road less travelled” is not going to undiscovered villages, but simply being a “3-month tourist” without being a typical English-speaking one.
More than discovering Hungarian verb conjugations, I would like to discover Hungarian culture – and speaking to its locals is the best way to do this. That’s what the mission will ultimately be about!
So join me and see if I can reach a pretty-good conversational level of Hungarian in just three months!
If you have any advice or thoughts about this mission, feel free to share them in the comments below!
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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