[lg policy] Hungarians Perplex World With Weird Language Policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Aug 21 17:48:35 UTC 2011

Hungarians Perplex World With Weird Language Policy

Ann Althouse picks up one of the oddest reports of the week: the
Hungarian government wants to discourage students from taking English
as their first foreign language because it is so easy!  The original
article in The Wall Street Journal is a head-scratcher:

    Hungary’s government wants to dethrone English as the most common
foreign language taught in Hungarian schools. The reason: It’s just
too easy to learn.

    “It is fortunate if the first foreign language learned is not
English. The initial, very quick and spectacular successes of English
learning may evoke the false image in students that learning any
foreign language is that simple,” reads a draft bill obtained by news
website Origo.hu that would amend Hungary’s education laws.

    Instead, the ministry department in charge of education would
prefer if students “chose languages with a fixed, structured
grammatical system, the learning of which presents a balanced
workload, such as neo-Latin languages.”

    Besides giving a deceptive sense of achievement, English learning
also makes acquiring other languages more difficult, the ministry
argues. Reversing the order, on the other hand, makes learning English
essentially effortless, it added.

The mystery deepens as the WSJ reporter, Gergo Racz, tells us that
Hungary’s real problem isn’t that too many Hungarians take the wimpy
way out and learn English; it is that most Hungarians don’t learn any
foreign language at all.  In fact, 75 percent of Hungarians say
(presumably in Magyar) that they don’t speak any foreign language at
all, and only six percent claim to speak one well.

Surely a government in this situation would go for the easiest
language on offer?

Few countries need foreign language fluency more than Hungary.  The
Magyar language is distantly, very distantly related to Finnish, but
otherwise Hungarian is in a world of its own.  A traveler in Europe
who has even a smattering of familiarity with a Romance, Germanic and
Slavic language will generally get around pretty well; the language
roots allow you to decipher some of the basics: words like
‘bookstore’, ‘toilet’, ‘train station’ and ‘trolley’ don’t vary all
that much within the language families.  Be able to sound out the
Cyrillic and Greek alphabets and you can survive if not always thrive
from Vladivostok to Valencia.

In Hungary you can forget that; when I first visited Hungary about
twenty years ago, even a word like ‘restaurant’, which is pretty
recognizable all across Europe, was no use. The Magyar word for
‘restaurant’ is (if I still remember this correctly) ‘etterim’. At
that time, Germany was the English of Budapest, and English was the
French.  That is, if you needed to discuss directions or money with a
taxi driver or a news vendor, German was the language to use.  If you
wanted to talk literature with a journalist or professor, English was
the way to go.

Poland was a different case back then.  Everybody over fifty spoke
German and everybody under fifty spoke Russian — but given the
circumstances attending the introduction of those languages in Poland,
nobody wanted to admit a knowledge of either.  Almost nobody spoke
English there back then — the Soviets discouraged English study even
more than the Hungarians.  If you asked for directions in the former
occupation languages people pretended they didn’t understand you; the
only way out was to be able to say in both German and Russian, “Excuse
me, please.  I’m an American and I don’t speak Polish.  Can you tell
me…” and then you ask your question.  Once the ice was broken, people
were happy to help.

None of this explains the mysteries of Hungarian language policy;
perhaps some Hungarian bureaucrats have a little too much time on
their hands?


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