[lg policy] Why are proud Hungarians mastering English? Simple pragmatism
haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon May 11 15:02:01 UTC 2015
Why are proud Hungarians mastering English? Simple pragmatism.
Hungarians and other Central Europeans are mastering English at a much
greater clip than many of their continental peers, in part due to a lack of
'lingual baggage' over learning another language.
By Sara Miller Llana, Staff writer
Budapest, Hungary — David Nagy works on the ground floor café of a
multinational bank in Budapest, where English is often the language of
He's hoping to prime his own English skills for a future job search. Plus
he likes American movies.
“I have met many Italians who don’t want to learn English because they
'must' speak Italian,” says the 25-year-old barista, fluttering his hands
in mock outrage at speaking English.
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His utter lack of pretension about Hungarian, on the other hand, is one of
the driving reasons why Central Europeans have mastered English at a much
greater clip than some of their lagging Western European peers.
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According to Education First’s most recent English Proficiency Index
<http://www.ef.edu/epi/>, based on adults who take their tests, Hungarians
are among the fastest adapters of English in Europe, along with Poland and
Spain. Hungarian adults rank higher than their peers in France, Spain,
Portugal, Switzerland – and Italy.
“Central Europeans don’t speak [native] languages that have a world
position. They are not hindered by that baggage,” says Kate Bell, the EPI
analyst at Education First in Paris.
Hungary still has a long way to go when it comes to English proficiency. In
a Eurobarometer poll from 2012, only one-fifth of respondents said they
could hold a conversation in it.
Still, if English fluency is not a given here like it might be in the Hague
or Helsinki, this reporter's recent trip to meet with government officials,
civil society activists, religious leaders, and the like required the use
of a translator just once. English isn’t nearly as widespread outside of
the capital, but cold-calling to set up interviews was 100 percent
successful with English only. The same is never true when doing comparable
work in France, Italy, or Spain.
Of all of Central Europe, Poland stands out as the star performer. It
overhauled its education system in the 1990s and 2000s and began to top
international educational charts. Poland is the lone Central European
nation to have mastered English, according to the EF index, alongside
Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands.
For many such countries in Central Europe, the shift to English came at the
first chance to leave Russian behind. In 1990, Poland counted 18,000
Russian language teachers. By the 2002-03 school year, there were only
6,900. In that time period English language instruction surged, from 1,200
teachers counted in 1990 to 36,000 a decade later.
Today there are undoubtedly more, as former Soviet satellites joined the EU
in 2004 and English became the working language of the international
community. And to that landscape have come a crop of entrepreneurs filling
what they describe as an insatiable demand.
One company called Angloville, which started in Poland in 2011, offers
one-week English-language immersion courses. The program pairs volunteers –
traveling retirees, students, backpackers, and the like – who might offer
their native tongue in exchange for free room and board and the chance to
get to know the culture, with locals who need to quickly acquire some
English. In 2013, the company ran 16 programs. In 2014, they ran 32. And
this year they have 57 courses planned – including in a new market, Hungary.
“As people across Central Europe have recognized the importance of English
proficiency for business and travel we’ve experienced a lot of demand for
our programs,” says Mitch Hume, a program coordinator at Angloville.
'English is what it is'
That demand could grow soon. Hungary has improved its English skills in
part because of education reforms that made foreign language acquisition a
requirement before graduating from college. Now the government is eying
changes to make such skills a requirement even before university. They can
choose English or German, with 60 percent choosing the former.
Hungarians speak lovingly and patriotically about their own language,
Magyar, which doesn’t belong to the three main categories of Europe:
Slavic, Germanic, or Romance. But they don’t feel that their language is
under threat just because English looks great on a CV.
That’s not the case everywhere in Europe. Some resent the requirement to
learn English when Americans and Brits barely bother to say "bonjour," let
alone negotiate complex deals in a foreign tongue. In France, when the
government announced in 2013 it was going to expand the rights of
universities to instruct in English, there was nearly a riot among the
intelligentsia. France also happens to sit at the bottom of the EF EU
“There is less of a willingness to say English is what it is, and everyone
is going to learn it,” as is the case in Scandinavia and increasingly
Central Europe, says Bell. But language need not be conflated with culture,
she argues. It can simply be viewed as a hard skill, like learning Excel or
“You don’t have to learn it because you like the US or you aspire to live
in the UK. You can learn English and not like English-speaking countries at
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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