The Jeszenszky affair

Let’s start with the bare facts. Géza Jeszenszky, who studied history and English at ELTE’s faculty for future high school teachers, became foreign minister in the Antall government (1990-1994). His appointment may have had something to do with his being the husband of Prime Minister József Antall’s niece. In any case, Antall’s government had a large number of historians, which was not really a surprise because Antall himself was one of them. When I first became active on the Internet I once made the mistake of saying something nice about historians. One of the people on the discussion forum loudly complained: “I don’t want to hear any more about historians.” He obviously wasn’t a fan of the Antall government.

Géza Jeszenszky
MTI Lajos Soós

The list of Jeszenszky’s publications is fairly slim, but admittedly the list I saw may not be complete. The only book I heard about earlier was one he published in 1986 and which was reprinted by the conservative Magyar Szemle Alapítvány in 1994 entitled Az elveszett presztízs. Magyarország megítélésének megváltozása Nagy-Britanniában, 1894- 1918 (Lost prestige: The changing reputation of Hungary in Great Britain, 1894-1918). In addition, I found two textbooks, both in English, for his English-language courses at Corvinus University: The Outlines of the History of International Relations in the 20th Century (1984) and The New (Post-Communist) Europe and Its Ethnic Problems (2005). It is the second textbook that caused the latest upheaval.

After the change of government in 1994 Jeszenszky went back to teaching full-time at Corvinus. He taught part-time even during his tenure as foreign minister. A friend of mine was a student of his in 1990-1991, but when I asked her what the subject matter was she had absolutely no recollection. That might give us an idea about his effectiveness as a lecturer.

In 1998 when Fidesz with the help of the Smallholders won the elections, Jeszenszky was back in the political arena. This time as Hungarian ambassador to Washington. Most people’s recollection of Jeszenszky as foreign minister and later as ambassador is pretty negative. As János Dési of Népszava said in an opinion piece, a career counselor wouldn’t have suggested diplomacy as a profession for the man. Dési is right. Jeszenszky had two left hands and was very often caught in uncomfortable situations of his own making. Jeszenszky even then made some unacceptable remarks about the Hungarian Roma in an interview with the conservative Washington Times (see Imre Kertész in Élet és Irodalom, 1999, and István Gereben, a well-known American-Hungarian who died recently, in The Washington Post, November 26, 1999). All in all, it seems that this most recent “unfortunate incident”  might not be an accident.

Jeszensky could hardly wait for the government change so that after eight years he would be back in the thick of things. This time he received a less illustrious position: he was named ambassador to Norway and Iceland. Quite a demotion after the prestigious post of ambassador to Washington.

So now to the incident. Two university professors and an LMBT (Leszbikusok, Melegek, Biszexuálisok és Transzneműek) activist discovered the following sentence in his textbook designed for his course on The New (Post-Communist) Europe and Its Ethnic Problems. The objectionable sentence read: “The reason why many Roma are mentally ill is because in Roma culture it is permitted for sisters and brothers or cousins to marry each other or just to have sexual intercourse with each other.” The first newspaper to report on Jeszenszky’s unfortunate  description of the alleged marriage customs of the Roma was Index, whose reports also unearthed some verbatim quotations in the textbook from Wikipedia and the Hungarian Foreign Ministry’s study on Hungary’s Gypsy population without mentioning the source. Although Jeszenszky complains that his critics picked out one sentence from his lengthy and objective description of the Roma minority in the region, a careful reading of the text, part of which is available in English tells us differently.

While Jeszenszky’s opinions of the Gypsies’  marital habits were being aired in Hungary, Jeszenszky as ambassador to Oslo was the organizer–jointly with the Norwegian Research Institute on the Holocaust and on Religious Minorities–of a conference on Raoul Wallenberg. László Karsai, a historian of the Hungarian Holocaust, was one of the invited guests. After learning of Jeszenszky’s remarks in his textbook, he decided not to attend. What happened at this point is not quite clear. According to one source, the organizers of the conference first tried to convince Karsai to change his mind but then,”becoming familiar with Jeszenszky’s text,”  they asked Géza Jeszenszky not to attend the conference. He was labelled a racist in the Hungarian left-liberal press. DK and LMP demanded his resignation. But the Hungarian Foreign Ministry saw nothing wrong. According to the communiqué they released, Jeszenszky wrote not as a diplomat but as a professor of minority questions. János Martonyi doesn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that Jeszenszky’s activities as a diplomat most likely are undermined as a result of this incident.

On ATV on Wednesday nights there is a program called “A tét”  (The stake) where the historian András Gerő is often an invited guest. The moderator poses a question and asks the three guests to comment. Gerő is usually the last to answer, and he invariably begins with “I would approach the subject from a different point of view.”  Well, this time I will do the same. I don’t know whether Jeszenszky is a racist or not, but I do know one thing: he is a lousy scholar.

I will start with a general observation. I am constantly amazed that quite a few Hungarians have several degrees in entirely different fields. An M.A. in history, another in sociology, and a third in psychology. Sometimes they seem to be studying these subjects simultaneously in different cities, which I find especially intriguing. Then there are all those members of parliament who are concurrently studying full time, usually law. Or physicians who have four or five specialties. These people must be geniuses. I sure couldn’t do that. Just as I couldn’t give a course on minorities in the post-communist world because I don’t have the background. And unfortunately Jeszenszky doesn’t seem to have it either. His field of interest was obviously diplomatic history, specifically Hungarian diplomatic history. And this is plenty for one person to digest.

According to the course description Jeszenszky lectures on “nineteen independent, sovereign states.” That is quite a job for someone whose background is in Hungarian diplomatic history in the twentieth century. In addition to the ethnic minorities traditionally treated as such, he also spends fifteen pages on the region’s Roma population.

Géza Jeszenszky doesn’t have to be an expert on the Gypsies, but if he’s going to talk about the marriage customs of the Gypsy population he should be able to cite some reliable sources. When pressed, Jeszenszky made some vague references to an English language article in a medical journal that he couldn’t read in full because it wasn’t available in its entirety on the Internet. By the second interview he came up with another article that was published twenty-five years ago; it was a very limited study of twenty Gypsy families’ marriage habits. I’m pretty sure that the subject has a large literature, and it simply isn’t enough to read a couple of articles online. Not if one wants to write a textbook for university students.

One can read an awful lot of nonsense on every subject, and even if Jeszenszky found two articles that claimed that the large number of Roma children in special education classes is proof of the fallout from intermarriage in the Gypsy community, he should have had the good sense to question the claim. The fact that a large number of Gypsy students are placed in special education classes is not because they are feeble minded. Teachers don’t want to bother with children who might be behind developmentally due to their lack of intellectual stimulus at home or children who are disruptive. A responsible scholar, especially considering the sensitiveness of the issue, doesn’t write down such twaddle as his own opinion. Perhaps if he had added “according to medical experts” it would have been a tad more acceptable, or at least he could have saved himself a lot of trouble. But even then critics would ask him to produce evidence, which obviously he can’t.

As for intermarriage, it is true that in all “closed communities” there is more than an average number of marriages among relatives that may cause genetic mutations which can be devastating for members of the community. But in order to ascertain the rate of intermarriage among Gypsies one would have to do serious genealogical research. And then study what the results of intermarriage are in the population.

The superficiality and carelessness of Jeszenszky as a scholar is unforgivable quite apart from whether he is a racist or not.

108 comments

  1. Instead of goodbye to Bernie (or Bernadette …) re the question of realnames:

    Didn’t it happen here in Hungary this summer that kuruc.info asked informers to give the real name and address of people protesting – so they could maybe visit them and “talk” to them ?

  2. This post really shows the sorry state of the Hungarian tertiary education. Jeszenszky is supposedly interested in Hungarian diplomatic history. But in order to be able to research the topic, he would need to speak German and French, and I would also suggest Latin as well. In any case, just with English it is not possible to make thorough research of the Hungarian primary sources. He is not equipped with the knowledge and theoretic background either. Given the terrible market situation for young scholars because of the hiring freeze, at various US or Western European universities there is now an overabundance of brilliant scholars, graduates of top Phd programs, with fantastic research and language skills, with several peer reviewed publications. In fact the market is so bad that you have people over forty who are still visiting assistant profs, and such like, but not tenure track, with credentials which would top those of almost anybody at Corvinus, but certainly those of Jeszenszky.

  3. Eva about Gypsy marriage practice: “I’m pretty sure that the subject has a large literature…”

    I wouldn’t be so sure. The subject is perilous to a research career. If the average researcher finds anything which reflects negatively on an ethnic group he will hesitate to publish it because he risks being labelled a racist. So better not engage in such research at all.

    There are strong arguments for not publishing results which can fuel prejudice and racism. On the other hand it is difficult to solve a social problem if you do not know the root of the problem.

  4. Re BeeMovie. To tell you the truth I have no idea whether Jeszenszky speaks any other foreign language beside English. Mind you, the text of his English-language lecture notes is full of mistakes.

  5. What’s with these right wing politicians and the inbreeding jokes? A few years ago Dick Cheney was joking about the common inbreeding among West Virginians. Is this some kind of hidden Freudian slip from them? Cheney immediately apologized by the way (he isn’t Hungarian).

    Apropos I’ve found Geza Jeszenszky’s family tree:

    http://www.funnyjunk.com/funny_pictures/533318/Redneck/

    This is deja vue all over again. We can call it the Romsics effect. Because you are a distinguished Hungarian “intellect” and the sun is shining out of your butt, you can say anything – it’s never racist. Or if you are of the Preparation H generation (no more sunshine) you can just trumpet together a few dozen of the so called “intelligentsia” and have them sign a petition that you are a fine gentleman. Case closed.

    You are what you say.

  6. Jean P :
    Eva about Gypsy marriage practice: “I’m pretty sure that the subject has a large literature…”
    I wouldn’t be so sure. The subject is perilous to a research career. […]

    Jean P: I’m not an expert on this. But IF there is little or no research on the marriage practices of the Roma in Hungary and/or the consequences of possible incest, the more reason for a serious scholar to be VERY careful when talking about a subject as sensitive as this.

    Ergo: Jeszenszky must be either just arrogant and lazy (never mind if there’s evidence or not, don’t you know who I am?), or incredibly stupid (evidence? source references? what’s that?)…

  7. Mutt :
    What’s with these right wing politicians and the inbreeding jokes? A few years ago Dick Cheney was joking about the common inbreeding among West Virginians. Is this some kind of hidden Freudian slip from them?

    According to the Hungarian Wikipedia, today’s Jeszenszkys belong to “two families which are of different origin but have lived in each other’s neighbourhood and repeatedly intermarried”.

  8. Bernard De Raadt :
    I hope you did ask Some one the same ja ja freedom of speech by by it was fun till your discrimination blog

    Dear DeRaadt, Eva does know who I am. She knows my email and phone number. She knows how to get hold of me. I would have no problem to disclose my full name, phone number and address if there would not be crazy people around like yourself. For the safety of my children, and my relatives who are in Hungary, I have no intention to disclose the required info for crazies like yourself. Also, I am sure you are aware of the “blood money” offered by Jobbik to those who identify people who do not agree wit them. But you do not have to worry DeRaadt this would not affect you. If you are, who I think you are, you are far away from Jobbik. and you hardly ever had any experience with Kadar, MSZP or Fidesz. The faith of the opposition where I suspect you live, was not to nice either. Regards.

  9. CharlieH :
    London Calling!
    O/T
    Something odd going on with Magyarpharma?
    First a ‘strategic agreement’ with Gedeon Richter (because they were about to leave?).
    http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2012/11/02/orban-doing-his-bit-for-hungary/#axzz2BMEzotzj
    and now Novo-Nordisk not liking the pricing regime in Hungary:
    http://www.budapesttimes.hu/2012/11/05/insulin-makers-needle-hungary/
    Regards
    Charlie

    Every quarter all “subsidized” medicines are reviewed, and as soon there is a cheaper version (read: generic) is available, than this version will be subsidized and not the original version.

    As far as I understood, it does not matter if that version is better or not better. Cheaper is the word. Further, some parts of Hungaropharma are in liquidation. The pharmacies will be given to individuals.

    Lastly, if there is a strategic alliance signed, it is good for VO and this company. It will not be good for the people.

  10. Is Bernard de Raadt here to promote Rozsa Hoffmann’s new education policy on English-language learning?

  11. Bernard (a) Rat lehetett pl. a kuruc.info támogatója is, vagy csak egy idióta volt, de a név miatt gyanús. A Hoffmann némber egy megáltalkodott hazug némber, a sátánnal is szövetkezne, nincs neki morális értéke. A hatalom, a pozició ami az ilyen tipusu emberek számára elködösíti a valóságot és megszünteti a becsületes értékrendszert. [Aki tudatosan hazudik, félrevezet, azzal kár okoz, annak nincs becsülete] Durván szólva a Rózsa akár Madame is lenne, ha az okatatási minisztériumot bordellonak alakítanák át és fontosabb vendégekkel személyesen foglakozna. Ez általános a viktor és koszos bagázs ezen az alapon működik. Egy baltás gyilkosért eladták a becsületüket.

  12. London Calling!

    Gyula

    Google wasn’t very helpful:

    Bernard (a) Rat as possible. kuruc.info a supporter or just an idiot, but was suspicious because of the name. The Hoffmann megáltalkodott a liar Wench Wench, the devil is szövetkezne, he has no moral value. The power, the position is that these types of people elködösíti reality and eliminate the honest value system. [Anyone who knowingly lie, mislead, to cause damage, it has no honor] Roughly speaking, Madame Rose is up, it would be transformed into the whorehouse okatatási ministry and main foglakozna guests personally. It is common Victor and dirty bunch on this basis. An ax gyilkosért sold their honor.

    Regards

    Charlie

  13. CharlieH :
    London Calling!

    Sorry, I was in the middle of writing emails to Hungary and I forgot to switch my brain. Now, let’s try again. Forget the Rat! Unfortunately, we cannot forget the state of education and teaching in Hungary and Prof. Jeszenszky is no jewel, but probably better, than the cream of crop now and especially in the Fidesz future (if there is any), under Madame Rózsa Hoffmann.
    I have a theory, regarding so called authorities in various subjects in Hungary. Géza Jeszenszky may be a prime example. A good or mediocre scholar, yet he becomes well known and well paid, because of family, party connections and marriage. This happens in other countries as well, but in Hungary it is a dominant form of career building. Instead of competing in knowledge and striving for excellence, careers are often helped a great deal by the influential friends and those who owe favor. The moral and mental corruption is widespread, unfortunately it increased a great deal after 1989, especially the monetary corruption.

  14. Bowen :
    Is Bernard de Raadt here to promote Rozsa Hoffmann’s new education policy on English-language learning?

    For non-Hungarian speakers. Bowen is referring to the latest brain fart from our Rosie The Riveter (Rozsa Hoffmann, undersecretary in charge of the education of our children). Only German and English will be electable in elementary schools and they strongly promote German – get this – because *** that is more difficult *** (no, I’m not kidding).

    They do everything they can to squash self confidence in children. I’m pretty confident that they intentionally trying to isolate them from the world.

    I can only parrot again the same idea. How about asking the PARENTS, Rosy?

  15. Gyula Bognar, Jr. :
    CharlieH :
    London Calling!
    Sorry, I was in the middle of writing emails to Hungary and I forgot to switch my brain. Now, let’s try again. Forget the Rat! Unfortunately, we cannot forget the state of education and teaching in Hungary and Prof. Jeszenszky is no jewel, but probably better, than the cream of crop now and especially in the Fidesz future (if there is any), under Madame Rózsa Hoffmann.
    I have a theory, regarding so called authorities in various subjects in Hungary. Géza Jeszenszky may be a prime example. A good or mediocre scholar, yet he becomes well known and well paid, because of family, party connections and marriage. This happens in other countries as well, but in Hungary it is a dominant form of career building. Instead of competing in knowledge and striving for excellence, careers are often helped a great deal by the influential friends and those who owe favor. The moral and mental corruption is widespread, unfortunately it increased a great deal after 1989, especially the monetary corruption.

    Well, this might help explain why Corvinus University is down at the bottom of the QS World University rankings (overall, it’s somewhere between the 550th and 600th best university in the world). ELTE is in a similar low position, although it was between 400th-450th in 2010. It’s slipped a lot.

    CEU is the highest-ranking Hungarian university currently (although it’s somewhat outside the Hungarian sphere of things), at 228th place.

  16. Ms. Hoffmann, similarly to Mr. Matolcsy, is just a symbol which can be used instead of mentioning Orbán. She, as Matolcsy, cannot decide anything on her own, all matters which might have the slightest political consequences are decided by the sole, khm, decider. That said, the preference of German has a logic to it. It is much more difficult than English and once you learn English, there is much less incentive and motivation to learn another language, such as German or French. Orbán himself told the story that he made her daughter to study French first only then English, and to be honest in that I have to agree with him. The issue is why exactly German, it could be French or even Spanish. But the incentive is a real issue, because just speaking English is not enough any more. Plus I like that even to get to university you will need some kind of a language test. I would even prescribe that you could not get a Hungarian college degree without being fluent in a foreign language (currently an intermediate level test is required which in practice is a joke). In addition, university teachers should be able to communicate fluently in at least two foreign languages.

  17. wolfi :
    Instead of goodbye to Bernie (or Bernadette …) re the question of realnames:
    Didn’t it happen here in Hungary this summer that kuruc.info asked informers to give the real name and address of people protesting – so they could maybe visit them and “talk” to them ?

    Yes, it did; and it had to do with that great Hungarian ‘hero’, Chatary. Young protesters were filmed outside of his rather expensive apartment in Buda. “What did the police or interior ministry do about this clear incitement to violence?” you ask.
    Ahh, I think they went to church and asked for further instructions….

  18. @ Newyorker: “once you learn English …”

    There is no end to learning a language. Languages are not products. And I can’t say I’ve met too many Hungarians in Hungary who are anything like fully proficient in English.

    So, the premise that Hungarians will have no interest in learning another language once they have “learned” English is – to put it mildly – deeply illogical.

    The argument that particular languages can be ranked according to “difficulty” is also nonsensical. There are multiple factors which are involved in making a language difficult to acquire. For example, I would find Hungarian far easier to acquire than (let’s say) French, since I have Hungarian connections and live in Hungary, and therefore I am motivated and in the appropriate environment. If someone has no interest in German, then they will find it impossible to “learn”, no matter what.

  19. When I first visited Hungary in 1993, I couldn’t believe that with a Hungarian school leaving certificate that did not show your proficiency in at least two foreign languages you would still be able to enrol at a university. The matura, the abitur, the baccalaureate, the IB – all require you to have studied and practised at least two languages in addition to your mother tongue.

    I noticed that in Hungary many students don’t finish their studies because they fail the language exams (which are not taken at the beginning but at the end of the university studies). What a waste!

    There is a Hungarian scientific quarterly – in English: “Space and Society” – for which I revise the English abstracts. I have done this now for two years. You won’t believe it, but more than a third of the English abstracts were close to incomprehensible, none was acceptable, i.e. all needed severe revision. The authors are professors, researchers and doctoral students. I wonder how they can read the international literature which in most fields is in English. In one case an author proudly announced a term he had coined. I had to tell him that it had been in use for the last thirty years, just looking it up in Google.

    The Hungarian academic scene is frighteningly shabby, it’s not even mediocre.

  20. Newyorker :
    Ms. Hoffmann, similarly to Mr. Matolcsy, is just a symbol which can be used instead of mentioning Orbán. She, as Matolcsy, cannot decide anything on her own, all matters which might have the slightest political consequences are decided by the sole, khm, decider. That said, the preference of German has a logic to it. It is much more difficult than English and once you learn English, there is much less incentive and motivation to learn another language, such as German or French.

    What you are saying has a logic to it … (I disagree completely).

    But what’s this got to do with the government?

    The parents and, horribile dictu, the high school students have a pretty good idea what they want to study and why. Also why can’t the colleges decide what the admission criteria (and the requirement to get degree) should be?

    Not everybody is a genious. If you force an average kid to struggle with German the frustration will seriously hinder their desire to learn a second language. Most of us luck the self confidence. We and our kids desperately need encuragment and success. This “make it difficult first” thing is a mindless, elitist idea.

    Their problem with English is different. It’s the countries where they speak English, that’s the problem. It’s like in the 50s. Coca Cola, Rock And Roll, a pair of jeans … Now all this dengerous ideas of civil liberties, freedom and democracy and rock and roll (still) … All evil!

  21. Mutt :

    Bowen :
    Is Bernard de Raadt here to promote Rozsa Hoffmann’s new education policy on English-language learning?

    For non-Hungarian speakers. Bowen is referring to the latest brain fart from our Rosie The Riveter (Rozsa Hoffmann, undersecretary in charge of the education of our children). Only German and English will be electable in elementary schools and they strongly promote German – get this – because *** that is more difficult *** (no, I’m not kidding).

    They do everything they can to squash self confidence in children. I’m pretty confident that they intentionally trying to isolate them from the world.

    I can only parrot again the same idea. How about asking the PARENTS, Rosy?

    I understand that 90% of the parents of elementary school children opt for English. Wow, they will be unhappy when the word comes down.

  22. @Newyorker: “That said, the preference of German has a logic to it. It is much more difficult than English and once you learn English, there is much less incentive and motivation to learn another language, such as German or French.

    Maybe there is a reason for that (i.e less motivation to learn German or French). Here is a chart for you.

    Of course, in Hungary German does make a lot of sense. But for most people it would be plenty if they could learn ONE foreign language decently, at least at a functioning (!) intermediate level. I’d leave them the choice which that should be. For people who are eyeing higher degrees and professional careers, two languages would be optimal, at a very proficient, fluent level.

    As for German being much more difficult… the common opinion among language teachers in Hungary is that it is more difficult to get to an intermediate level in German than in English, but it is easier to get from an intermediate level to advanced. In English, the beginning is easier (to get to an intermediate level) but than getting to an advanced level is more difficult than in German.

    Anyways, starting with the more difficult language can have its effect on motivation as well… what if people just get even more discouraged about language learning and give it up altogether? It seems to be happening already even with “easy” English.

  23. An :
    Anyways, starting with the more difficult language can have its effect on motivation as well… what if people just get even more discouraged about language learning and give it up altogether? It seems to be happening already even with “easy” English.

    Phew. As a linguist, I have been confronted with this question quite a few times. And I have also had heated discussions with Hungarian colleagues about the reasons why two thirds of Hungarians cannot communicate in ANY foreign language.

    I don’t believe that the order of the languages plays any significant role. (Except in a system in which only the first language is the one you have reasonable chances to learn properly.) And we should finally (and that goes for us all, not just for the Hungarians) get rid of the “limited container” metaphor: you only have space for so-and-so-many languages in your head… What is important is HOW these languages are taught. And in this respect, language teaching in Hungarian schools obviously doesn’t work. (I don’t know what happens in there, I only see the “products”.)

    Today, English is a MUST. Too bad, but that’s how things look like in Europe at the moment. I have many frustrated Hungarian colleagues who, at the beginning of their studies, were lured to believe that “German will be all you need, it’s an international language”. Well, it isn’t any more, not even in German studies, and these colleagues, over 40 or 50 years old, now sweat and swear and take English courses because it’s the only way to get along in any decent international academic network.

    According to her official CV, Rózsa Hoffmann has a teacher’s diploma in French (she did have a fit of this kind before, only then she kept recommending “Romance languages”) and Russian, plus a doctorate in pedagogy. It seems that she doesn’t know any further languages, such as English, at least they are not mentioned.

  24. Bowen: I agree with you. It does not make any difference which language you start to learn first. Learning a language is a chemical process in the brain and the brain does not care which chemicals and quantities it has to secrete and send through the synopsis’s. However age and the quality of musical hearing does have effect on most people, the speed and pronunciation depend on those factors.
    …………..
    Replacing English with German is a political and economical decision. The viktor/matolcs duo must work with Germany, but they hate the USA with a passion. Germany builds huge factories in Hungary, we don’t. Hungary slipped off the list of countries which deserve attention, investment and it is not highly regarded, to put it mildly, even by the socialist government of Obama. Martonyi almost froze to death in Washington, standing for only 2:14 minutes next to Hillary. It was the shortest and most somber speech spoken by the ice cold and “angry” Hillary and a visiting foreign minister.
    The viktor had not been invited and never be invited for official visit and talks with the President, to Washington, D.C., or to the White House for any other official visit. Guantanamo would be a better place for him, for life, but Obama would not listen to my suggestion, at least not now. Depending who will be our next president, I will repeat my request.

  25. @Sentrooppa-Santra: I agree that order really should not matter. I was just trying to point out that the motivational argument put forward by Newyorker doesn’t necessarily hold (that is, that by starting with the more difficult language and the you’ll be more motivated to learn a second).

    We also agree on the importance of English. There is no way getting around that… if you only have time for learning one language, English is your best bet. It’s not about how many languages fit into your head (I’m sure that only depends on one’s persistence), but rather how you would want to spend your energy and time getting the best “return” on your investment in learning a foreign language. Unless you are in some special situation, you can get the most out of English, as it is globally used.

  26. There are many issues here to reflect on. First, when the statistic of other countries show how many people speak foreign languages, the statistics do not say anything about the language family relations and about inherent multi-ethnicity. For quite obvious reasons in Slovakia or Romania about 10% of the population are billingual to a certain extent and this is the basis on top of which German, English speaking ability ss added. I hope I don’t have to explain why an Italian or French, or a Romanian for that matter, can learn Spanish relatively easily. (Perhaps it is not coincidence that Romanians tend to go to Italy, France and Spain as immigrants). Dutch is just between English and German, so much so that a diligent native German speaker can learn Dutch in a matter of months as I saw it myself several times. Slovaks can speak and understand Russian, Polish, Croat with relative ease. In addition, there is a substantial liturature which shows that billinguality in childhood is very good from a cognitive standpoint with positive cognitive consequences still in adulthood.

    None of these apply to Hungary as it is linguistically one of the most homogenous countries in Europe, you may know that as a matter of practice (i.e. apart from linguistics) no regional accents exist as they do in Austria or the Netherlands, countries of roughly similar size. Note that Finland is similarly homogenous enthically like Hungary, perhaps partly because it also speaks a finno-ugrian language which is difficult to master for immigrants (compare the immigration levels to Finland and Sweden, a country of similar size and affluence) – their advantage is the best educational system, which allows Finns to learn English (and other languages). Note also why so few American, despite all the best universities, speaks any foreign language (except for Latinos); there is no incentive, since everyone else speaks English.

    Now, I agree that languages should be practiced forever, but I also do think that, as a matter of practice in regular school studies of languages in a non-native setting, there is a difference between the levels of difficulty of languages. It is another matter why foreign languages are taught so badly in Hungary. But this is part of the education issue, as the sector suffers from a number of fundamental problems. I just think that the logic is there, and once someone is more or less fluent in English, the incentive to get by on only English is great. Perhaps this move is good for the likes of Orbán’s kids, but not for everyone. I don’t know, I just think there is a logic to it.

    There is also a terrible vicious circle in operation here. If parents don’t speak foreign languages, language skills are not valued, movies are watched with dubbing and not with subtitles then this indifference is inherited by the children, whereas in families where language learning is encouraged, because the parents already speak it, the children tend to speak a foreign language better. In general, if parents value learning, are in the position to help the kids with the school and read books, their children also tend to do well in school. If the parents can read or write their kids also can’t really value learning, because it is a concept outside the family’s epistemology. It might not be a problem, perhaps if education also concentrated on parents so that they would understand why their children need to study something, which education might be the very tool later which will set the family apart. In other words a family (parents) might feel, at least subconsciously, that if the kid will know too much, they will leave and family is an important bond in Hungary, perhaps one of the few valuable ‘assets’ one has in very poor areas. This is not something that is needed to be told to the readers of this blog, but it is very much an issue. How can you sell the importance of foreign languages to parents, when they themselves don’t speak it, know only a few who do, don’t feel the need of it in every day life because they don’t travel, want to read, meet new people?

  27. It would be nice if only the language education was the only problem. How about math?

    Undecretary Sandor Czomba today in the parliament: “Probably the real wages will decline next year, but I think, if we add up the declines in real wages during the previous years, the overall real pay is actually a raise.”

  28. @ Newyorker
    Your comments all seem valid, although I’d disagree about the logic of saying German is more difficult than English. I’d need some evidence of that this is so, and that learning a difficult language would inspire you to then learn ‘easier’ ones. This seems like a smokescreen to me, to discourage people from learning ‘easy’ English.

    This notion also views languages as a product, rather than a process-oriented activity. In this way, learning a language is quite unlike any other subject. A language shouldn’t be something you look at, learn about, conduct research into (unless you’re an applied linguist). Language is a tool to do something with. The nearest equivalent would be learning to swim or ride a bike. Would you advocate teaching kids to learn to do karate before they can run, because it’s more ‘difficult’ and it would encourage kids to do ‘easy’ things like running? I doubt it.

    In Scandinavia and Northern Europe (the Netherlands springs to mind), actual school subjects, like Chemistry or IT, are taught through a foreign language, like English. This is called content language integrated learning. It means English becomes the medium through which another subject is learned. And, it’s very successful, because children actually get experience in doing things with the language, not just treating the language as a body of grammar tenses and vocabulary lists to be studied.

    Interestingly, Rozsa Hoffman doesn’t like this approach. Recently, she has suggested that the few bilingual schools in Hungary which do use this learning approach should cut back on the subjects taught in a second language, because (in her words), it’s “unpatriotic”.

  29. I think one should stick with the Finnish example. Traditionally, Finnish students had to learn Swedish, not exactly a world language. In the 1970s, hardly anyone spoke English or any other non-Scandinavian language for that matter, not even in the capital, Helsinki. But a huge national effort has catapulted Finland to the top of PISA rankings within three decades. So it’s possible – if there is the political will to do so.

  30. Minusio :
    I think one should stick with the Finnish example. Traditionally, Finnish students had to learn Swedish, not exactly a world language.

    I get it! The analogy! The Finnish learned Swedish because the Swedish Kingdom invaded Finland. We will learn German because of the Hapsburgs. Makes sense.

  31. Just a few more points to add.
    I have been going back to Hungary to annual visits and also to Germany to see friends and relatives. My wife is American and even thought her ancestry is Spanish, our in-laws are Cuban and Mexican, her Mom and all her uncles, aunts spoke and her sister speaks Spanish, she speaks Spanish as much as I do. Nada!
    Since we go mostly to Bavaria, Heidelberg, our friends are multi-lingual (4 languages each), I forgot all my German, because everybody speaks English there. Nobody wanted to wait for me to search for a few badly pronounced words in German.
    So let’s talk about Hungary.
    I have a basis to compare the progress in Hungary in the last 32 years at least, as I could not go there for the first 10 years.
    In the 1980’s, middle aged and older people could be found, who spoke German, but few people of any age spoke English. English was spoken in better hotels and restaurants, and tourist places. I could not leave my wife alone, she felt lost.
    As the older generation died out and English became the language of travel, learning and art (let’s call popular music art) the younger people began to learn English. Nowadays one can easily find someone in a group of a few people or in the stores, among the salespeople, who can speak passable English and most people understand basic words. My wife had no problems, when I had to take care of some menial, boring business (getting passport or tires for the car, etc.) and she was on her own for most of the day.
    You are correct, the Hungarian language is by itself, not part of a large language family. By the way, relatives or not, if the Finns can understand more than a dozen words in Hungarian or vice-versa, I would be surprised. I still like them and I am glad they separated from us and made their own country and they did it their way! That is swhy they are successful.
    Madame Rózsa Hoffman does as she is told, but all in all, everybody wants to leave a legacy, once he/she gets the top job and there are certain items, the boss does not care about. Even the viktor would consider suggestions. If he doesn’t care about something, he may even take it. So the Madame suggests French, but the viktor says, no, no, no, nobody speaks French, I hate Sarkozy, he did not let me in his study, shut the door in my face, called me names last year. So the Rózsa suggests German. Angela Merkel still allows the viktor to speak to her, up close, in person, once a year. There is Audi, Opel, Mercedes and there will be lots of dumb kids in Hungary, who have gym, catholic religion, Fidesz moral teaching every day, not much else. Gym is the most important subject, so the Fidesz will educate the kids to be monkeys to the viktor’s image. So the viktor agrees, let’s teach them German. They will make good assembly line workers, the kids have opposing thumbs for tools. Everybody will hate it, so parents will send the kids to learn English from their own money. Fire the English teachers. More loot left for the Fidesz goons and soccer stadiums. Maybe the 2024 Olympics will be in Felcsút, says the viktor. This is how I see things in Fidesztan.

  32. Gabor Vermes :
    Eva, you do have the right to disagree, but, evaluating a scholar, you cannot just cherrypick.
    zero in on one or another items. Did you read his book? And, for that matter, did you read his
    entire text book, rather than just part of it? As I did write, I have my disagreements with Geza, but the attacks on him – not by you but by Karsai and Molnar – are unwarranted.

    GV, even if wasn’t addressed, I feel that I have to widen your horizon on the matter.
    I take your word that Jeszenszky really ecxellent in his field of studies, but if something, it makes the whole unpleasant affair even worse. If Jeszenszky was ‘only’ a teacher, it would obliged him to apologize, but by representing Hungary in Norway and attending scientific gatherings as a speaker on the issue, he manage to cause much more damage.
    Having a bad day, committing one- or other mistakes is one thing, stubbornly insisting on the same thing qualifies him to called ignorant and stupid, – I dare to say after reading his attempt of ‘explanation’: I don’t have to take back my words, – without regret.

    You say: “the attacks on him are unwarranted.”

    Really?
    Just take a look at these reactions what he – I allow, inadvertently – sat in motion, and this only one place – I have no stomach to go further:
    http://maghar.gportal.hu/gindex.php?pg=21156448&nid=6286087
    http://maghar.gportal.hu/gindex.php?pg=21156448&nid=6286757
    http://maghar.gportal.hu/gindex.php?pg=21156448&nid=6286093

    You know, if someone assuming the place of a diplomat, (to me: of unknown reason, but still!) one of the very basic things to learn is to think in advance, to have the ability to evaluate the effects and possible conclusions of ‘any’ word he utters, let alone, writes down.

    And, in essence, in this case it’s totally irrelevant, whether or not what Jeszenszky published is true, a responsibly thinking public figure, a Hungarian Ambassador, for Christ’s sake, should have at least enough common sense, even if quite dull-brained otherwise, to take the only sensible step.

    A step down, that is.

    The question with a classic still applies, after 12 years, would you believe it?

    “…how such a man could be called Géza!!!”

  33. This discussion is really interesting and there are different reasons why maybe one foreign language might be better (as a start …) than the other but in reality there just are not enough qualified teacher in Hungary!

    I’ve probably described the problem once already:

    I hope the situation is better right now but my wife’s youngest son told me that his language teachers said they should not worry about he/she (it’s just “Ö”), er/sie/es, his/hers, sein/ihr etc …

    So of course even now they have this problem – doesn’t matter which Indo-European language they learn …

  34. Bowen :

    Recently, she has suggested that the few bilingual schools in Hungary which do use this learning approach should cut back on the subjects taught in a second language, because (in her words), it’s “unpatriotic”.

    Hmmm!
    I arrived to the conclusion, that the word ‘logic’ isn’t Hungarian either…
    How is it, really?
    She meant, that minorities should learn on the language of the majority, because of patriotism?

    I wonder, how she manage to sell this idea to the minority population of Transylvania!

  35. Mutt :

    Minusio :
    I think one should stick with the Finnish example. Traditionally, Finnish students had to learn Swedish, not exactly a world language.

    I get it! The analogy! The Finnish learned Swedish because the Swedish Kingdom invaded Finland. We will learn German because of the Hapsburgs. Makes sense.

    Hungary should be so lucky as to be taken over by Germany. (As a jew, I never thought I would say that!)

  36. Spectator reminds me that whenever I go to Transylvania (my wife is from there), I am struck
    at how good at languages the Transylvanian Hungarians are. Especially in English. And they speak it freely, and with confidence. Some lessons to be learnt there, I think …

  37. Minusio :

    I think one should stick with the Finnish example. Traditionally, Finnish students had to learn Swedish, not exactly a world language. In the 1970s, hardly anyone spoke English or any other non-Scandinavian language for that matter, not even in the capital, Helsinki. But a huge national effort has catapulted Finland to the top of PISA rankings within three decades. So it’s possible – if there is the political will to do so.

    I”m glad you mentioned Finnish. One often hears that the reason Hungarians find difficult to learn languages belonging to the Indo-European language family because Hungarian is grammatically a Finno-Ugric language. Clearly as the Finnish example shows that theory simply doesn’t hold.

    And by the way I had to take Finnish for a year at ELTE. It was harder than any other language I ever tried my hands on.

  38. spectator :

    Bowen :

    Recently, she has suggested that the few bilingual schools in Hungary which do use this learning approach should cut back on the subjects taught in a second language, because (in her words), it’s “unpatriotic”.

    Hmmm!
    I arrived to the conclusion, that the word ‘logic’ isn’t Hungarian either…
    How is it, really?
    She meant, that minorities should learn on the language of the majority, because of patriotism?

    I wonder, how she manage to sell this idea to the minority population of Transylvania!

    I heard that far-right skin-heads tore out the New York-Herald Tribune from the hands of somebody on a streetcar. Read Hungarian, they yelled.

  39. Bowen :

    Spectator reminds me that whenever I go to Transylvania (my wife is from there), I am struck
    at how good at languages the Transylvanian Hungarians are. Especially in English. And they speak it freely, and with confidence. Some lessons to be learnt there, I think …

    Sure, because they learned Romanian already.

  40. Even a cursory look at the hundreds of articles on the medical consequences on consanguinity in closed ethnic groups published in Medline (widely used medical database) one is struck by sentences stating “there is a strong Roma tradition of consanguinity, which can increase the likelihood of having a child affected by an autosomal recessive disorder.” (Ir Med J), or Lancet (a widely read British medical journal) where one of their articles on American gypsies describes “thirteen of twenty-one marriages were consanguineous, yielding an inbreeding coefficient of 0.017.” Other articles deal with Saudi Arabia, Spain, Slovakia and consanguinity and its consequences for the Roma.

    By some estimates over half of British Pakistanis marry first cousins and recessive genetic disorders among their children are 13 times more likely than among British children. One tenth of these children develop disability according to the Birmingham Primary Care Trust. Closer to home, in public schools in the US serving neighborhoods of closely knit communities, the number of of classes for special education are considerably higher than the national average.

    Undoubtedly, Roma society is burdened with predictable medical outcomes by their societal norms.

  41. In the UK you are allowed to marry your cousin. There must be a reason that the law permits this – even though it is known to be high risk for any offspring. And presumably that reason is that, until recently, it was fairly common for cousins to marry.

    The usual explanation for this is that people didn’t travel far before the advent of the railways and industrialisation, but that doesn’t explain the high incidence of first and second cousin marriages amongst the aristocracy (especially the Royal Family). I suspect their reasons for ‘keeping it in the family’ are not too far removed from those of the British Pakistani community or the European Roma.

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