While you are in Budapest, you can easily make yourself understand in catering if you speak English. However, the average Hungarian rarely speaks any foreign language.
“A good traveler’s sign is that being able to communicate wherever abroad.”Kath Stathers, British travel guide writer
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How much do Hungarians speak English? I illustrate it with a funny story
Etel and Brian went on a mission from a Hungarian multinational company. Etel, as the company’s purchaser and the female employee of the month, and Brian, one of the subsidiary’s signatory overseas executives.
Unfortunately, neither of them could speak in the other mother tongue, so they could only speak a little bit of Hungarian and a little bit of English, which they picked up from somewhere. They were randomly assigned for the task, but as time was against the company, they had to accept the situation.
They went with a company car, which left early in the morning after a quick coffee. Brian and Ethel traveled three hours to the destination, then negotiated well, signed papers, bills, and whatever was needed.
Did he read my name from my business card? thought Etel, whom Brian had just begun explaining on the way back from the front seat while pointing to himself and her:
Etelka smiled kindly at the man and answered him with her modest knowledge of English:
– Yes, I am!
And she looked at him questioningly. He didn’t appreciate her language performance, just kept pointing, but this time out on the windshield.
They were passing through the middle of a small village, in front of a Little Cock Tavern. Etel didn’t really understand Brian, who was stubbornly repeating her name in English and pointing to his head already:
– Ethel, ethel…
– Yes, yes, super!
She continuously nodded.
-Yeah, that’s my name if you say it in English, but I prefer the Etelka, it is a lot cuter! She told him, in a kind way but still confused in the Hungarian language, which of course the other didn’t understand.
As they went on, time passed, Brian was moving more and more in his place, it seemed he was in trouble. He must pee, but he can’t tell. Etel didn’t stop because they had not gotten home!
Etelka was very strict, and she didn’t like to drive in the dark, and she wanted to get the day over and finish work. In the end, however, she had to stop at a gas station to refuel. Brian didn’t seem to want to help her out, but ran straight to the shop!
By the time she finished fueling, she couldn’t see the man anywhere.
She started to search for him, finally, she found him in a secluded corner of the shop, three huge sandwiches in front of him, pushing the fourth half down, and chewing in his lustful munch while holding a glass of soft drink with his other hand.
With wildly glowing eyes, he looked eagerly at the food and Etelka, then pointed to one of the sandwiches between two swallows:
– Ethel, Ethel! (That sounds like ítel (food) in Hungarian.)
– Awwww, you meant „étel” (food) ?!!! OMG, I am so sorry!
Then poor Etelka realized that Brian’s “Ethel” was in Hungarian, food, not Ethel! Well, that could have fitted into the Life of Brian Monty Python movie? Only at “Brian’s food”.
„He who speaks a bit of a foreign language has more delight in it than he who speaks it well; pleasure goes along with superficial knowledge.”Friedrich Nietzsche
One more story! A true one…
So, as we can see, without language skills, we can quickly find ourselves in funny situations. I attended a primary school class meeting this summer. Everyone told a little about their life.
One of them, Rita, who is currently working for a travel agency, but was also a tour guide, told interesting stories. For example, about foreign tourists and how determined it was in her career to speak foreign languages, especially English.
In 1990, at the dawn of the regime change in Hungary, relatively few people spoke English well. But he studied at the University of Veszprém and spoke very well in English.
One day, she went to the market to buy chicken, but on the way, she popped into a travel agency to see a friend. There she found two confused foreigners. An English journalist from the European Parliament and a Belgian photographer who wanted to make a report on the withdrawal of Soviet troops in Hungary and were looking for an interpreter.
At the travel agency, only German-speaking staff worked, so Rita voluntarily worked as an interpreter. Hungarians are traditionally hospitable, so that day they enjoyed Rita’s language skills and chicken stew. With whom she crawled for two days, she was escorted to mayors, abandoned barracks, military bases that had long been secret.
They’ve got in some very exciting places they even had to get through on a fence! The two foreigners were very lucky to have met her at that time. Of course, at least one or at least two or three foreign languages are spoken in official tourist offices, resorts, hotels. (Mostly English, German, Russian.)
However, an average Hungarian couldn’t help them at this level, no matter how hospitable we are. And no average tourist is interested in bunkers for nuclear weapons. Without knowledge of Hungarian, how much success can a foreign vacationing family turn to passersby, the people on the street for information?
The question was given in our chat group, how much do Hungarians speak foreign languages? Nobody had a very good opinion and experience about it.
The Hungarian language is very unique, it is very difficult to learn
I think Hungarian is one of the oldest languages in the world, and we can be proud of that. Modern scientific research has now refuted the so-called Finno-Ugric theory concerning the origin of our language and its language family.
It is more likely that the people of the distant Stone Age used an ancient version of the Hungarian! Many distinguished linguists share this view. For example, most words typically include the meaning of the word too.
It is a very catchy language, based on logic and mathematics, and thinks numerically. We could also say that high-tech linguistic technology manifests itself in the ability to express in one word something that is possible in other languages with only three, four or more words.
Over time, of course, we were influenced by other nations. It is sufficient to mention the 150-year-old rule of the Turks and the Habsburg’s long rule in Hungary.
But the Russian (Soviet) period of nearly fifty years from the end of World War II, until the change of regime. For a long time, therefore, they influenced the use of languages and the acquisition and learning of foreign languages, both as official and common languages.
We could also say that the average Hungarian has learned to some degree of Turkish, sometimes German, or Russian over the centuries. The leaders, the diplomats, the merchants, surely better, the little men just tangentially.
I was forced to study Russian in primary school for a total of 8 years! Now, I doubt if I could say three sentences. Perhaps that is why, as a kind of covert resistance, many were unwilling to learn Russian in a proper way.
It was a stupid thing to do afterward, as an adult I regret doing that. After all, proficiency in all languages is profitable, but as a young one, I did not think about that. These came to my mind as a reason why so few people in Hungary speak other languages.
Because of the uniqueness and the thinking of the Hungarian language, it may be more difficult to learn the languages of other peoples, and its general fashion hasn’t developed, unfortunately.
There are certainly many other reasons and individual limitations too. There are exceptions and language talents, of course.
What do the statistics say? What percentage of Hungarians speak a foreign language?
I read a relatively recent EUROSTAT survey on the Internet, which measured the foreign language skills of Europeans aged 25-64 in the European Union. Hungary is at the end of the list among the warlords.
Fortunately, this is an improving trend (5.4%) compared to earlier similar statistics. On the other hand, the number of people who speak at least one foreign language is increasing, and this process continues.
It is very important that young people, high school students, and college students are given even more prominence in language learning, but the willingness to do so is still very low, although the existing higher-level language exam is essential for the diploma itself or for many jobs.
It is a curiosity that according to the survey, the majority of students in the European Member States study English (96.2%), French (26.1%) and German (16.8%), even Spanish (12.6%).
How to get directions in Hungary
English and German are the two main languages of choice in Hungary as well, if we ask youngsters for help as tourists in university towns, schools, and public areas, we are likely to get it.
Budapest and the big cities of the countryside, county capitals are more likely to be in this area as well, we can meet people who understand several foreign languages and speak some foreign language.
Of course, there are interpreter services, translators, phone apps, we can use modern technology to help us, all of which will be useful to us in communication.
Fortunately, we have a Hungarian record holder called Ottó Gaál, who holds the record of language examinations obtained in Europe. He speaks a total of 27 (!) languages and has now developed and widely disseminated his own creative language learning method. Some people would have to be cloned anyway, and the tourist office could easily finance it, wouldn’t it?
Deciphering the pronunciation of our mysteriously sounding and written names is no easy task for the mortal tourist. The “Moszkvics-slusszkulcs” (Muscovich – Russian car type, Starter key) is hard to pronounce even in Hungarian, fortunately, we don’t have such a street name!
When we go abroad, of course, everything is the other way round and it is true.
It may be important that if you are looking for an unpronounceable Hungarian place, street, town, you have a map, a guidebook to show you exactly what you are looking for and where you have to go.
It is important because many street names will surely not be pronounced! Whoever we ask will not understand what we want.
However, we may become a budding pantomime artist and explain with our fingers and feet to each other, but this is a more appropriate solution.
„You need to know a foreign language if you want to sell something. But if one buys something, everyone will understand!”Gabriel García Marquez
When we go abroad
We can feel the deficiency in the field of language skills, and we have to admit that we could be much better! But we are constantly evolving and there is no communication disorder that cannot be remedied with fine stuffed cabbage and jam pancakes.
Visiting Lake Balaton frequently, the mimics of our tourists, who had their well-deserved feast, has always spoken for itself. However, in many cases, this will not be enough, we have to realize.
Slowly, but in Hungary, there is progress in this direction. At the end of our great fun reunion, Erika told me how it is when a Hungarian gets in other languages’ trap.
During her university years, Erika was given the opportunity to go on a longer study trip to Finland. It could have been counted as a summer job.
To her surprise, she ended up on a smaller island, in a research station with a changing staff of 8-10 members. What was a little scary, but not too unpleasant, there was a time when she was the only female at the station!
The other boys were Finnish and Swedish. The language of communication is mainly English, which is spoken by everyone.
Of course, the boys sometimes took advantage of Erika not understanding Finnish and talking to each other for a long time, and Erika had the right to think that it was about her too.
A pretty woman among so many guys! Seeing her embarrassment, she was often addressed in rhythmic language, and she just let them get on and said in Hungarian with a smile, whatever they say:
– Persze, persze! (of course, of course!)
This means in Hungarian that “it is okay, just keep talking”, at least not literally, in such a situation.
But the answer was always a big laugh and a grin from the boys! This has been going on for days, and it has become customary to respond to them like this. All sorts of questions were asked of her in Finnish, she just snapped and cheered on the success.
Then there was a boy of the newly arrived ones who was startled and shook his head. Erika said “Persze” (Of course) too often, and for that, he finally said to her:
– Please tell me, you can’t see that they are pissing at you?
Of course (hehe) poor thing has shocked, and now she wanted to go to the end of why she was causing so much fun or scandal.
Finally, she was told that in Finnish “Perse” means: Ass! There, she immediately decided to kick the “perse” of the main invaders in the evening.
So we can safely say that foreign language learning is going to become fashionable in Hungary, only slower and more groaning. Therefore, please do not discourage our dear foreign tourists, they can always take revenge if we go to their country!