I’m finally going to do it.
After fifteen years and several forays into other foreign tongues I am finally going to learn Hungarian. This may not seem to be the most logical, advantageous or opportunistic language for a middle aged, American male to tackle in the Post-Cold War era. I do, however, have my own reasons for taking on the challenge.
My first exposure to Hungarian came when I was a Junior in college. I had just completed summer-school in Spain and had met up with a high school friend to do the obligatory “blow through as much of Europe as you can in a month” tour. We had been racing through all the usual stops: France, Italy, Greece, Germany, Austria , when we were approached by a fellow American traveller.
“ You know, Hungary just opened up. You don’t even need a visa anymore. You guys should check it out.”
Being among the first American tourists to venture into this formerly verboten land was an incredible opportunity that we just couldn’t pass up. I do digress that our first choice of cities was actually Prague, in what was still Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, every available mode of transportation into Prague was completely booked up. Apparently, the Rolling Stones were playing a huge concert there for the equivalent of $5 US and the influx of fans was just too overwhelming for Czechoslovakia’s transportation infrastructure.
The second logical city choice was Budapest. We booked ourselves on the first available train into a place where we had no contacts, no guidebooks and literally, no information.
The train pulled into Budapest’s central station around 10PM. It was drab, quiet and very dimly lit. The train dropped us off and we both just stood there; silent, confused and wondering if we just made a huge mistake.
The problem was that neither of us spoke a word of Hungarian. Throughout the other European countries we could pretty much get by with broken English and a smattering of words in the other countries’ languages. Not so in Hungary. All of our pleas of
“ English?! English?!” ,
were greeted with blank stares and confused looks.
Through some wild gesticulations and the grace of God we were able to secure more than adequate lodging for the night. To this day, I’m still not sure how we worked that one out. We had a fantastic time in Hungary. We ended up staying there longer than any other place on our trip. I did, however, have somewhat of an epiphany there. I vowed never again will I solely rely on my English in a non-English speaking country again.
Over the years language learning has become a fascination and, at times, an obsession for me. I have become fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. I have become quite competent in Turkish, Italian, Russian and Haitian Creole. I have dabbled ( just enough to get me in trouble) with German, Dutch, French, Greek, Norwegian, Albanian, Hindi, Persian/Farsi, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, Arabic and Swahili… yes, Swahili…
I have always been interested in Hungary and the Hungarian language. I am Hungarian on my maternal side although I’m fairly sure my mother has never been to Hungary. I am certainly sure she doesn’t speak a single word of Hungarian.
On my long past trip to Hungary I can remember staring at signs and wondering,
“What on earth does that say?!?”
The words were so foreign appearing and seemed to come from a different universe, never mind from a European country.
“One day I’ll learn what they mean”, I thought to myself.
The impetus for my newfound quest to learn Hungarian was set forth by my wife. On deciding where to go for our next vacation, we agreed on Hungary.
“There you go, now you can learn Hungarian!!”
I certainly have my work cut out for me. Hungarian is considered one of the hardest languages in the world for an English-speaker to learn.
It is one of the few members of the Finno-Ugric language family. The other well-known members are Finnish and Estonian although a Hungarian would not be able to pick out more than a word or two from either of them. The Hungarian language was brought into Hungary centuries ago via invading tribes from Central Asia. Remarkably, through the centuries Hungarian has retained its Asian character and syntax and has remained isolated from its neighboring Indo-European languages. Nearly all other European languages belong to the Indo-European language family. Thus, English is much more closely related to Hindi, Persian and Albanian than it is to Hungarian.
My plan of attack revolves around using both the Foreign Service Institute’s Hungarian Basic Course from the 1960’s and the Defense Language Institute’s Hungarian Basic Course from the 1980’s. Both of these courses are suitable for self-study with dozens of hours of audio support… which is good… Sadly, in my neighborhood there aren’t many Hungarian speakers! Eventually I will attempt to use some of the video chat programs to speak with real Hungarians.
Well, I suppose I should get started…..wish me luck!