Learning Hungarian

Roza, my four-year-old daughter, is patient with me as I struggle to understand her. She doesn’t know it, but I’m in awe of the complexity of her sentences and the fluidity of her pronunciation. I worry about what she thinks of my linguistic backwardness. I can already picture a conversation she’ll have a year or two from now with a chum at school, “Yeah, my Dad is nice, but he’s a little slow.”

I started studying Hungarian five years ago, after marrying a Budapest native. Fair warned though I was about the difficulties involved, and experienced in learning other languages, I was quickly frustrated with my glacial progress. When about a year later my wife told me she was pregnant, an extra tingle accompanied the surge of parental joy: this child could be my ticket to Hungarian. Learning side-by-side with a baby would be just the thing. We would move as co-conspirators from baby talk to first words, then on to simple sentences, and before long to mature language.

It hasn’t worked that way. Once she began speaking, Roza’s Hungarian outstripped mine like a bullet express speeding past a creaky freight train. Increasingly she has treated me with a kind of polite sympathy that upends the usual parent-child dynamic. One day recently, watching me rack my brain to come up with a basic word in Hungarian, she announced to me generously (in English), “I’ll be your Hungarian teacher Daddo.” But then when she explained something to me in Hungarian and I could only barely follow what she was saying, she turned bemusedly back to her Duplo.

Hungarian has a fearsome reputation as an impregnable linguistic fortress. One literary friend, on hearing of my current efforts, noted that Edmund Wilson started learning Hungarian late in his life. He pointed this out as though it affirms Hungarian’s status as a kind of final peak that one of the most learned men of the last century attempted only after scaling everything else. An acquaintance in Budapest who is an especially keen collector of Hungarian language trivia mentioned to me that Theodore Roosevelt dabbled at learning Hungarian. Apparently he did so after spending a day in Budapest in 1910, the first ever visit to Hungary by a sitting American president.

I’m fairly certain that this will be the last language I try to learn. I’m at an age when the time and energy for another language seems scant. This knowledge colors my slow-motion assault on Hungarian with a kind of advance nostalgia, sweetening what has so far been a punishing process. Learning languages has been a near constant part of my adult life.

In my early 20s, when I lived in London for several years and traveled around the continent on cheap rail passes, I was dazzled by the dense forest of European linguistic variety.  It was such a contrast to the monolingual desert of my California childhood. When I discovered that the parsimonious stipend of my British scholarship would stretch to cover summer courses outside Great Britain, I was off.  An intensive language program in France the first year, Spain the next, and Italy after that. The other students were gregarious multinational gaggles. Studying languages helped me break through my shyness, forcing me to join the conversation.

The teachers were a varied lot. In Santiago de Compostela, Spain, I spent dozens of classroom hours straining to understand the sad, wandering monologues of the chain-smoking Spanish writer who had given up a summer of writing literary notes in cafés to make some money instructing foreigners. In Urbino, Italy, I was in the hands of a fervent Italian communist who perched her elegant shoes on our desks while lecturing us on what she called the semiotics of imperialist aggression. In Paris, I cowered with the other students under the cutting eye of a painfully elegant Parisian woman who tortured us  with rapid fire dictations and grammar drills.

I threw myself into a second cycle of language learning in my 40s, starting with Romanian for use in a research project there, then Russian, also for research purposes, and more recently Hungarian. In this second phase, I’ve had the luxury of one-on-one tutoring–another deep well, it turns out, of unusual personalities.

Katya, my Russian teacher for several years, was a mid-30s Muscovite transplanted to Washington due to her husband’s job. In hundreds of hours with her I probed the parallel purgatories of Russian grammar and the Russian soul. Katya was a source of blistering wisdom on every element of life. About marriage for example her views were clear—marriage was voina, war. This was not to be regretted.  The point was to accept the need to fight, and then fight hard. Every description she offered of home life with her Dmitri was so harsh that I eventually asked her why they stayed together. “But this is life,” she said, “a series of battles, which you can’t hope to really win, you just struggle not to lose them. Besides, if I decided to leave him I would first have to find him another woman, because he is incapable of taking care of himself, and I really don’t feel like doing that for him.”

She experienced American life as a perplexing mix of absurdities and luxuries that horrified and amazed her in equal parts. During our lessons, which took place at my office, she kept an eye on the peripheral goings-on at a typical Washington research institute. The placidity of most of the human interactions at the office mystified her. Where was the drama of life? Lost, in her view, in the quotidian tedium of people with insincere smiles constantly pretending to be polite and helpful. My administrative assistant, a sunny young woman named Lauren, fascinated her. Lauren always greeted Katya on her arrival with a pleasant smile, and an obliging “how are you?” During the lessons, I sometimes asked Lauren to come into my office to pick up study materials Katya had brought for me and make a copy of them. I watched Katya react with quiet pain each time Lauren chirped “sure!”  One day as Lauren left my office, her latest cheerful assent still hanging in the air, Katya muttered murderously, “Shyoore, shyoore—if I were your assistant I would make you pay deeply for every one of your ridiculous requests.” She explained how when a Russian responds to a request from a superior with “konyeshno” (“of course”), multiple layers of resistance and hatred are embedded in that putatively helpful reply, reflecting the undimmed legacy of centuries of serfdom. She then sighed wistfully and reflected, “But yes, ok, I would be willing to submit to the regime at your institute because there would be dental insurance, no? For that I could tolerate slavery.”

With professional and personal commitments now crowding my life in ways unimaginable in my 20s, my language learning is often squeezed into concentrated bits at odd times—CDs in the car, language apps on my phone while I wash dishes, occasional insomniac binges on my favorite Hungarian teaching website. Lacking free time, I have become a masochistic expert in creating the most concentrated teaching experiences possible. The highwater mark came one summer when I heard about a specialized institute in Vladimir, a small city east of Moscow, where a clutch of women professors had banded together to teach Russian to foreigners. I signed up for two weeks of their most intensive teaching experience—eight hours of one-on-one classes per day, six days a week. Four different teachers, each extremely sharp and almost reverential in their love of Russian, worked me over in tag team style, one after the other stepping in after the previous one had exhausted herself pushing me through grammar exercises, dictations, readings, and conversation drills. On my lunch breaks I sat alone in a cavernous, deserted restaurant where they had arranged for me to eat, consuming thick soups and tough bread, resting a mind that ached like a runner’s thighs after wind sprints.

After four more hours in the afternoon of equally arduous sessions I would repair to the homestay apartment they had arranged for me. There Olga, a heavyset, jolly retired school director cooked enormous amounts of food for me. She talked to me continuously throughout our dinners, urging me to eat more and more, pointing firmly to a faded photo on the wall of her deceased husband, Mikhail, who she said, used to really know how to eat. Mikhail had unfortunately expired twenty years before, in his mid-50s, probably done in by one too many platefuls of stuffed cabbage, blinis dripping in sour cream, piled chunks of venison, and mountains of boiled potatoes and fleshy dumplings, all washed down with beer and vodka. From the dinner table I would stagger over to one of the overstuffed chairs in front of the television and sit with Olga watching the news and then South American soap operas dubbed into Russian, which provoked from her endless comments and frequent tears. And then I would finally retreat to my room, and somehow find the energy for an hour or two of homework before crawling into bed and falling asleep listening to the radio broadcasts that played in my room through a speaker on the wall, with no dial, from the old Soviet days of single channel life, sonorous voices reading stories by Gogol and Turgenev. My next day would start early with Olga cheerfully tapping at the door, telling me that my small vat of boiling water for bathing was ready, something she prepared on the stove for me every day, the hot water in the building being turned off due to the annual summer remont. Ready also would be an eight-course breakfast which she had been up for an hour or two preparing. This was language immersion of the first order.

I have learned over time that after enough persistence and in the right setting, linguistic breakthroughs  eventually occur. They aren’t a sudden lifting of the curtain but something more like light finally appearing through a few holes in a wall after scraping it with a dull spoon for several years. The breakthrough is prepared by tedious groundwork but then catalyzed by either fear or desire, creating a moment where you simply have to speak.

With Spanish it was fear. The moment came during my first job after finishing law school, as a junior legal officer in the U.S. State Department. I was sent to El Salvador for a month to fill in for someone at the U.S. embassy who was on leave. It was during the Salvadoran civil war and my assignment was to oversee an assistance program to a special Salvadoran police unit set up to investigate the human rights crimes that were occurring in sickening quantities in those awful years. I was supposed to meet regularly with the commander of the unit and his men, learn what they were doing, and negotiate their requests with Washington. Theoretically I was even supposed to give them advice about good police methods, an idea that may have had a modicum of plausibility when someone in Washington wrote it into the assignment guidelines, but seemed patently absurd in situ. An utterly green American legal graduate on his first trip to Central America advising a hard-bitten police colonel and his sullen, heavily-armed men about how best to take on the military thugs carrying out human rights atrocities? Buena suerte.

Eager to get away from my desk in Washington I had wormed my way onto the assignment by assuring my boss that I spoke decent Spanish, an assurance he took at face value. When the Salvadoran colonel first shook my hand, trained his cold eyes on me, and started to tell me about his unit’s work, my throat tightened. Clipped syllables flew past me unrecognized. The language course I had taken in Spain, some five years before, suddenly seemed like terribly thin soup. My Salvadoran month stretched ahead as a terrifying landscape of embarrassment and perhaps professional disgrace. I tried cultivating an intensive listening look and the persona of a steely young man of few but well-chosen words, especially “claro,” even though almost everything I heard was the opposite of that. But then to my amazement, over the next few weeks, after many difficult meetings in which I pushed the laconic profile to the absolute limit, something like Spanish started coming out of my mouth and I survived the assignment. Though I never did manage to offer any useful policing advice.

With French, the moment of linguistic truth arose from desire rather than terror. It arrived at the language course at Santiago de Compostela. Sophie, a young French woman in the program with an elusive smile, captured my heart. She was just starting Spanish and spoke no English, so French was the nearest thing we had to a common language. My previous studies of French had endowed me with the bare bones of the language, but I had never managed to put them to any real use. But there I was one afternoon, sitting in a café with Sophie looking at me expectantly, waiting to see if this eager, thus-far-incoherent American would turn out to be at all amusant. Her liquid eyes were no less motivating than the Salvadoran colonel’s cold, piercing ones. And so, very badly at first, but then pas-à-pas over the next several weeks, I began to speak French. At the end of the program, an older Frenchwoman in our class who had observed my petite histoire with Sophie praised my progress in French in her impeccable Parisian diction: “You have employed the best language method of all, la méthode audiosexuelle, with notable results.”

A breakthrough with Hungarian is still far off. I’m inching through the grammatical undergirding. But there’s hope. My daughter and my wife chatter constantly around me in Hungarian, allowing me to witness phrases paired with actions. Moreover, I’ve discovered a dark secret about the language. I hesitate to divulge it, as it will lessen the heroic nature of my undertaking, but here it is: Hungarian is not actually that complicated, at least grammatically. It is an extremely regular language and many of its main grammatical features are straightforward. Verb tenses are relatively simple. There is no masculine-feminine distinction to worry about. The notorious case system is actually not bad, especially compared to Russian—one does not have to change the case of the rest of the words in a sentence when one word gets put into the accusative, instrumental, or possessive form. The language is pronounced exactly as it is spelled, with almost no exceptions. And the sounds are not difficult, except for a bit of murkiness with different variations of the “u” sound.

The headache of Hungarian lies principally in its shortage of cognates with English and other Indo-European languages. One gets an essential leg up all across the Indo-European spectrum from the fact that many useful words are basically similar, whether in Polish, Portuguese, or Norwegian–words like “student,” “university,” and “hotel.” In Hungarian, which is not an Indo-European language, you’re out of luck. For student you have to remember “diák.” For university, “egyetem.” For hotel, try to hold “szálloda” in your mind. Almost every word is an entirely unrecognizable clump of letters. And Hungarian is rich with compound words, leading the non-native explorer to come up against forbidding agglomerations like “tömegközlekedés” (public transportation) or “lelkiismeretfurdalás” (bad conscience). Hungarian thus requires a daunting amount of rote memorization, not the strong suit of an aging mind, or at least mine.

But I keep at it. At a time in my life when many trend lines are heading downward, from the flexibility of my joints to the sharpness of my hearing, I like plugging away at something where I can push the trend line up, no matter how slowly. And though my daughter has already left me so far behind that I can’t really describe us as partners in the endeavor, I like connecting to her in this additional way. She just started playing board games and is willing to suffer through them with me in Hungarian. Thanks to a lot of dice rolling and moving wooden pieces on colored paths, my numbers are rock solid. And it just occurred to me the other day that some repeated rounds of Candy Land might lock in my knowledge of color words once and for all. And she’ll think I bought the game just to make her happy.

Image:  “Sopron Hungary” by Andrew Nash. Licensed under CC 2.0

Thomas Carothers
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  1. Great article. I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t learned a singje word of Hungarian even though I’ve spent lots of time with the Hungarian-speaking ladies in your family!!

  2. great storytelling for all who have attempted other languages, and isn’t that everyone? Just delightful….


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