As I continue to struggle spasmodically with learning Hungarian (I am now on my fifth teacher, all the others having given up fighting with my recalcitrant tongue), I was highly bemused to learn that minds within the Ministry of Education think that English shouldn’t be positioned as the first foreign language Hungarian students learn, as it is… wait for it… too easy! Apparently, these great minds think that learning English as a first foreign language creates the misguided notion that all foreign languages are easy to learn and when they find out otherwise, students give up. By their logic, if students were to study ‘languages with a fixed, structured grammatical system, the learning of which presents a balanced workload, such as neo-Latin languages’, which represent a lot more work, then they could learn the much easier to learn English almost as a by-the-way. Ergo, by learning more difficult languages first, Hungarians would become more multilingual.
In Hungarian, the stress is always on the first syllable. That’s an easy rule to follow. In English however, the stress often determines the meaning of the world. For instance, permit and permit are different; the former is a verb, to allow, the latter a noun, a licence to do. Same letters, same combination, different meanings. Or what about determining what the first syllable is? Refuse and refuse, or produce and produce, or invalid or invalid. Need I say more?
In Hungarian, each letter of the alphabet has its own unique sound that never varies. If you can figure that out, you have it made. (Four years and I still can’t pronounce tej!) Not so in English where a bandage is often wound around a wound, where a sewer (think needle and thread) and a sewer (think human waste) should not be confused, and where oarsmen on the Danube can have a row about who is to row. Simple, eh? Hungarian letters are never silent – I am still confused when I hear Hungarians pronouncing the K in Knorr and occasionally in knife. But even more confusing for students of the English language is whether a number of injections will make your jaw number? Painful stuff indeed.
In Hungarian, there are rules for make things plural. And yes, of course there are some exceptions but even these exceptions are couched in logic. But in English you have to ask why, if the plural of goose is geese, why the plural of moose isn’t meese? If the plural of mouse is mice, why isn’t the plural of house, hice? If the plural of die is dice, why isn’t the plural of lie, lice?
In Hungarian, there are literal translations that make it easy for students of the language to understand. Ujj is finger. Lab is foot. Labujj is a foot-finger or a toe. But pity the student still looking for the apple in pineapple or the egg in eggplant or the butter in butterfly. And to add to the confusion – sweetmeats are actually crystallised fruit while sweetbreads are made from meat.
I suppose that if I went back far enough, I might find an explanation as to why we have noses that run and feet that smell or why we recite at a play but play at a recital. I might also find answer for why a slim chance and a fat chance mean the same thing but a wise man and a wise guy are opposites. How can anyone describe a language as easy to learn when in that language a house can burn up as it burns down, when you fill in a form by filling it out, and an alarm goes off by going on. Come to think of it, if vegetarians eat vegetables, does that mean that humanitarians eat humans?
So much of the English language depends on context. And it’s only right and proper that I make an effort to contextualise this move within the Ministry. The articles I’ve read suggest that is a reaction to statistics that Hungarians are at the bottom of the EU ranking of multilingualism with nearly 75% of Hungarians aged 25-64 admitting to speaking nothing but Hungarian. This doesn’t compare well to Sweden’s 5% but then aren’t we comparing apples and… em… swedes? Figures for Ireland were not available but I suspect we’re closer to Hungary than we are to Sweden.
To those who say that English is an easy language to learn, I suggest you think a little more deeply about what you mean by ‘learn’. To those who suggest that learning a more difficult language first would help me learn an easier language as a matter of course, I say balderdash. I studied Gaelic for 13 years, French for five years and I still can’t speak Hungarian.
First published in the Budapest Times 30 September 2011
Note: Mary Murphy is a freelance writer and speaker who, for this article, has unashamedly plagiarised an anonymous e-mail she received years ago on why the English language is so hard to learn. She is indebted to its author…who may well be Hungarian.