Greatest Hungarian Iranologist
October 26, 2010 7:28 AM   Subscribe

Good read. Thanks for posting this.
posted by d1rge at 8:10 AM on October 26, 2010

Not to be confused with Arnold Kegel, master of squeezes.

On a more serious note: Great stuff. Thanks a lot.
posted by Brackish at 8:25 AM on October 26, 2010

If you can learn Hungarian, the rest are a breeze.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:01 AM on October 26, 2010 [5 favorites]

Living in North America, it has always been so impressive to me, to see other people from other countries take up English as a second or third language and be able to fully function with it as if they spoke it all their lives.

I grew up learning French as a second language (and live in Montreal, a primarily French-speaking metropolis) and while I can get by making small talk, I still can't watch French programming, nor would I be able to have a meaningful discussion with a French-speaking person.

Probably because I know subconsciously, that I can always return to speaking English.

Now I am trying to learn Greek, to speak with the inlaws, and while it's challenging, it remains quite enjoyable. I can really see the appeal of wanting to master more and more of them.

I find that when you read in another language, you travel to a different world, a different reality - I would even venture to say that it's a sort of rebirth - learning to speak again.

Don't get me started on reading non-roman scripts - I started to learn the Devanagari script, and I can't begin to describe the sheer joy of watching alien characters slowly evolve into an understandable message over time!
posted by bitteroldman at 9:22 AM on October 26, 2010

Dee Xtrovert, contrary to popular belief (especially among Hungarians), Hungarian isn't inherently harder or easier to learn than any other language, in my opinion. The hardest part of language learning is internalizing the culture in which a language is spoken, and learning Hungarian, as a central European language with deep connections to European culture, isn't usually particularly difficult for a motivated speaker of English, German, Italian, etc. (Acquiring a native accent in spoken Hungarian is difficult-to-impossible for many, but the same could be said of English, German, Italian, etc. Some people can do it, some can't -- it's kind of like having perfect pitch.)

Of course Kégl and the other Hungarian orientalists (there's a long tradition) took language- and culture-learning to an impressive extreme.
posted by Kiscica at 10:26 AM on October 26, 2010

Thanks kliuless, great link. I'll also plug my post on a Hungarian orientalist, as he's mentioned at your link and may be of interest to people who enjoyed this.
posted by Abiezer at 10:35 AM on October 26, 2010


a Czech proverb (allegedly) reads "to learn another language is to acquire another soul".
posted by MessageInABottle at 11:05 AM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hungarian isn't inherently harder or easier to learn than any other language, in my opinion. The hardest part of language learning is internalizing the culture in which a language is spoken, and learning Hungarian, as a central European language with deep connections to European culture, isn't usually particularly difficult for a motivated speaker of English, German, Italian, etc

I speak about a dozen languages, and English is not my native tongue. But I've never had a bit of problem with "internalizing the culture" of any of them. In fact, my native language is Serbo-Croatian, which gives me a *slight* advantage over many other Hungarian learners (as does my knowledge of Romanian), since these languages do share a small number of words of Slavic and Turkish origin one won't find in English or German or Italian. Historically and culturally, of course, the Hungarians are closely-related to my own people.

I've not found any language all that hard to speak, but Hungarian's largely unique vocabulary and complex grammar make it tougher for most people than many other languages would, not to mention the fact that most reliable sources (like the US military) rank it up near the top in difficulty, particularly for languages which use basically the same writing system we do. Most academics also state that to achieve basic speaking proficiency as an adult requires about 50% to 100% more time than most languages, and that's whether you're an IE speaker, Japanese, whatever.

Personally, my enjoyment of Hungarian's weirdness makes learning fun, and therefore easier. But most people would find it a tough language to learn. In a fairly recent study, Hungarian was found to the language in which beginning students were found most likely to "drop out" earlier than planned, with the exception of Albanian. (This survery was limited to all the national languages of Europe, plus important minority ones such as Basque, Romanes, Sami, Breton and a few others.) This could be for many reasons beyond difficulty (I reckon Albanian's easier myself), but given Hungarian's vast literature, status and many facilities for study, I can't believe relative difficulty doesn't have a little something to with it.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:11 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

I wonder how many people read the post and were too jealous to comment. I was one, almost.

Still jealous.

posted by ersatz at 12:28 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dee Xtrovert,

Well, I'm certainly not claiming that you or anyone should necessarily have a problem "internalizing culture." In fact, for reasons that will become clear below, I would expect someone with your nick (Xtrovert) to have very little trouble.

My claim is only that "internalizing culture" is ultimately the hardest, or perhaps I should just say largest, part of learning a language, beside which the piddling differences in phonology, morphology, and syntax are more or less irrelevant. I'm being a bit facetious with the "piddling" of course, but I honestly do believe that acquiring the structure of a language is not what takes the most time and effort when you look at the course of successful language learning -- and I'm talking here about adult second (or nth) language learners who end up mastering the spoken tongue, of course, not children on the one hand or dabblers on the other, and not the separate issue of learning a written language either.

So what do I mean by "internalizing culture"?

I've had many years of observing learners in numerous linguistic environments. The ones who do best are always those who enter a new language environment and become actively social in that environment, basically shedding as irrelevant (part- or full-time) their "foreigner" identities as rapidly and fully as they can (and consequently "internalizing the [new] culture"). Even if they never crack a grammar book or a dictionary, even if they don't give any conscious thought to the structure of the new language, they end up proficient, sometimes in a matter of months. (Children do this automatically. Adults differ a great deal in their ability to do it, but as near as I can see it's not correlated to any propensity towards thinking a lot about language.)

Now here's the thing. So far as I can tell, this is completely independent of the learner's L1 (native) and L2 ("new") languages. Take an outgoing, socially engaged English speaker who has no desire to maintain an identity as a foreigner and dump hem in Hungary, and se'll end up pretty fluent in spoken Hungarian within a year or two. It'll take the same time to be equally fluent in German, or French, or Japanese, or what-have-you. I've seen the various combinations happen again and again, and of course I've learnt a bunch of languages with varying degrees of divergence from my native tongue myself, and I'm really confident of this. And that is why I don't think that one language is inherently more difficult than another.

Now. Let's consider someone studying languages the traditional way - with a grammar, a dictionary, and perhaps in a classroom. (Although why we should call that "traditional" I don't know, since people were learning languages long before grammars, dictionaries, and classrooms.) Let's say English is hes native tongue. Is Hungarian going to be more "difficult" than French in this context? Perhaps, perhaps. Certainly the morphological and syntactic patterns, much of the root vocabulary, perhaps even the phonology is going to seem more natural in the case of French. Hungarian is going to seem, to phrase it as you did, a little "weird," while French -- to which Modern English owes perhaps nearly as much as it does to its Germanic ancestors -- is going to seem quite comfortably familiar. In fact, no other European language aside from Basque may come across as quite as weird, although you could make quite a case for Finnish and Estonian (the slightly more SAE-normalized syntax helps those languages seem less weird), and if you count Turkish as a European language, then it probably belongs in the same class. But if our learner takes it all the way and becomes truly fluent in any of these languages, the vast majority of that process is going to happen outside of the classroom -- it's going to result from interaction with other speakers of the language, and it's going to take just as long for Hungarian as it does for French. The initial relative weirdness is going to fade away, become irrelevant to the process at large.

Hungary has maybe produced more than its share of linguists and people who think about language deeply, but I don't think it's primarily because Hungarians start off having mastered a difficult language! Hungary is a linguistic island, and the language is a matter of national pride. I don't feel that, as you might expect if Hungarian were truly a more difficult language, Hungarians necessarily learn foreign languages better than other European nationalities (which was the joking claim that initially sparked this conversation: "If you can learn Hungarian, the rest are a breeze.") Rather, it's the same story as everywhere: the ones who are motivated, who go to a foreign country and immerse themselves in the foreign culture, pick up the language rapidly and well. Foreign language education within the country itself cannot be said to have been abnormally successful. Sőt, as we say in Hungarian. Even now, it's much harder to find a Hungarian university student who speaks (say) English well than it is to find the same in Germany, Holland, or Scandinavia.

By the way, when I was learning Croatian (with books and grammars, not in the engaged social way I describe - I have been to South Slavic language areas only a few times) I found that my knowledge of Hungarian was as much a hindrance as a help. I kept wanting, subconsciously, to force Croatian's prefix-aspect system into the Hungarian model, and it didn't work!
posted by Kiscica at 1:53 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I quote " A language is a dialect - with an army"
but who from?
posted by jan murray at 3:14 PM on October 26, 2010

Max Weinreich, linguist and professor of Yiddish at City College in New York, is usually credited; he cited the aphorism (in the original Yiddish: אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט "a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot") in a 1945 paper, but attributed it to someone else.
posted by Kiscica at 3:28 PM on October 26, 2010

I've been working on Hungarian for twenty years now. I translate from German, French, Spanish, and Italian into English at about 4000 to 5000 words a day. From Hungarian - the language of my wife and children - I can only manage about 1500 words a day. Granted, that's because I've done vastly more German than Hungarian, but trust me, Kiscica, Hungarian is harder than other European languages. For English speakers.

You're certainly right that a socially embedded speaker is much more quickly a fluent one, but ... Hungarian culture isn't the problem for me. It's just the fact that regardless of Hungary's identity as a European country, the overlap between meanings of specific terms is a lot more fluid than in the other language pairs I use. A lot more fluid.

It's been about two months since my last sizable Hungarian job, so I can't easily provide you with good examples, but what I'm trying to say is that if you do a "word for word" translation from German, you'll end up with readable, if stilted, English - but if you do that from Hungarian, you'll end up with gibberish. When translating Hungarian, there is a lot more of the "now how would I put that in English" kind of thought.

I can't speak for other non-Indo-European languages, which presumably are similar in difficulty, and I'm also not talking about just fluent use of the language, which you are - but from the perspective of the translator, I can tell you that Hungarian is hard. Actually, one of my agencies in Budapest just told me this summer that it's difficult to find native English speakers that work from Hungarian into English - it's just too hard to do it well.
posted by Michael Roberts at 7:34 PM on October 26, 2010


Having worked as a Hungarian-English and English-Hungarian translator (for bureaux in both Hungary and the USA), I do appreciate your perspective. As you acknowledge, this isn't quite the same question that I was addressing, namely the relative difficulty of learning a language to spoken fluency.

I've only rarely worked professionally with language pairs other than H/E (translation has never been anything but a side gig for me, except for perhaps one year in Hungary when it was my main source of income) but in former life as an (academic) linguist I used to translate articles informally for myself and on occasion others all the time, sometimes from languages such as Russian (in which a great deal of the literature of my specialization was written) that I don't speak fluently, and sometimes from Hungarian and German, which I do speak fluently. Well, for me, unsurprisingly, Hungarian and German are a lot easier to translate into English than, say, Russian. Furthermore, I'd estimate that for informal translations (where I'm simply reading the text and rendering the sense into English) the speeds at which I do Hungarian and German are about equal. (Again it is hard for me to estimate this for professional translation, since I have rarely done German/English. Professional translation is a more painstaking process in which you really do have to weigh the meaning of individual words more often.)

But in any case, I think my experience is simply a function of the fact that I speak Hungarian and German, but I don't really speak Russian. Isn't it possible that your experience of a much lower translation speed in H. than in G. is simply a result of your speaking German better than you do Hungarian? I would surmise from your post that you don't ordinarily speak Hungarian with your family, so while in theory you'd have the opportunity to become completely fluent in the language, you may not have done so.

In my experience, the "word salad" type of translation that you give as an example isn't that relevant because that's not how translators really work, at least in languages that they actually speak. All real translation is a matter of thinking "now how would I put that in [target language]." I mean, I will readily agree that word salad from German makes more sense in English than word salad from Hungarian. But that's primarily a function of the close syntactic similarity between German and English. I doubt you translate German/French/Italian into English word-for-word, "destiltifying" (:-) it after the fact. No, you probably read the source language, render the sense into the target, then -- depending on how exacting the translation needs to be -- mull over any residual linguistic impedance mismatches. And that process is faster for you in G/F/I than in H, but couldn't that simply be because you do it a lot more in G/F/I?

Just so that my own background here is clear, since it might not be from my previous posts: I am a native English speaker; I learned Hungarian (after a couple of years of learning about Hungarian as a linguist) by the expedient of going to Hungary and using it all the time, pretending where necessary to be Albanian so that no one would practice their English on me -- I did run into an Albanian once but he kept my secret :-)

I have had the "couple of years of learning about [foo] as a linguist" experience with N other languages and found some of them to be harder or easier than others, in their particulars, to learn about. But I would not claim real fluency in anything other than English, German, and Hungarian. And I really began to learn those languages when I stopped thinking about them as objects of study and just went out and used them... made friends, went drinking, fell in love, et cetera. For both Hungarian and German, that process lasted about two years. That is, it took me two years of trying to use the language all the time before I started to be able to fool native speakers (sometimes). I really cannot say that I found one two-year period easier or harder than the other.
posted by Kiscica at 9:39 PM on October 26, 2010

I don't think the simple fact that Kegl was born in Hungary had much to do with his amazing linguistic talents. Linguistic talent doesn't depend on one's mother tongue. Possibly the closest contemporary case of astonishing polylingualism is the late Dr. Kenneth Hale, who taught linguistics at MIT and was said to speak over fifty languages – many of them American Indian and Australian Aboriginal languages that would appear at least as difficult as Hungarian to any speaker of an Indo-European tongue (he raised his children in Walbiri, an Australian language.) One story about Hale tells how he arrived at Tilburg University in the Netherlands having taught himself Dutch during the flight from Boston using a Teach Yourself Dutch book. Within a week he was teaching the class in Dutch with a fluent Tilburg Flemish accent.

As for Hungarians being apt at learning languages... Hungarians rate as the most monolingual nation in the European Union, with 75% being able to speak only Hungarian, followed by Portugal (51% monolingual), Spain and the UK. We have had the dubious honor of having the only monolingual representatives sitting in the EU parliament. For politicians and businessmen, unashamed purchase of a grade for your language exams is a given.

That said, Poemas del rio Wang is written by Hungarians. It is one of the most beautifully multilingual blogs around... the archives are full of great writings and visuals.
posted by zaelic at 3:21 AM on October 27, 2010

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