By 1990, it was no longer compulsory to learn Russian in Hungary. Students celebrated, no longer forced to learn the “language of oppression.” But fast-forward to 2009, and Hungary may be facing a foreign language gap — a 2004 study showed fewer Hungarians spoke second languages than almost any other country in Europe, except Britain.
Eva S. Balogh is a Hungarian academic and blogger who writes at “Hungarian Spectrum” about the state of language education in her country.
Learning a language in Hungary
The teaching of foreign languages in Hungarian schools is bad. Very, very bad. As far back as I can remember it was bad. Although my father in the early part of the twentieth century managed to learn German and French quite well in gymnasium, by the time I got to gymnasium it was a hopeless proposition.
Let me recount my own tortuous linguistic journey. Aside from being enrolled in a so-called German-language kindergarten where we learned no German whatsoever, I started studying French in grade five. […] Although the parochial school I attended was run by a French order (Notre Dame), out of the four parallel classes they taught German in three and French in only one.
Our French teacher by Hungarian standards wasn’t even half bad. The fact that she was a nun stood her in good stead in mastering a foreign language. Because she majored in French she was sent by the order to a French university for a couple of years. So she could at least speak the language tolerably well. However, the class focused on reading and writing, with virtually no conversation. So after three years of French I switched to Russian. That was an interesting experience. I don’t think our teacher knew more Russian than we did. I.e. zero. She was at best a couple of lessons ahead of us. Not surprisingly we learned practically nothing by the end of the year.
[…]With the change of regime Russian was no longer a compulsory language. So students rushed to English, German, and French classes. But who were their teachers? The former Russian teachers who tried to learn English, German, or French with the same poor results as the German and French teachers who had earlier tried to learn Russian.
Today, aside from the lack of experienced teachers, the problem seems to be the same as in earlier times. Students don’t learn to communicate in a foreign language; they can neither speak nor comprehend. They are in the same boat as the Hungarian students who were trying to converse with the Russian soldiers in 1956.
Some people have tried to explain Hungarian deficiencies in learning a foreign language by pointing out that Hungarian is not an Indo-European language and therefore Hungarian speakers find it harder to learn a western language. This is hogwash. Finns manage; the percentage of Finns speaking one or two foreign languages is among the highest in Europe. Moreover, Hungarians find it easier to learn a western language than to learn Finnish whose grammatical structure is very similar to Hungarian.
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