It’s time to talk again about one of my hobby horses, foreign language teaching in Hungary. Faithful readers of this blog will undoubtedly recall how often we talked about the shortcomings of the system. Everybody has horror stories about learning a foreign language in Hungary. Although there are some schools that excel in teaching foreign languages, most students leave grade 12 without a working knowledge of a foreign language.
The Ministry of Human Resources is planning to introduce new “language strategies.” These strategies, hatched by the two undersecretaries in charge of education, Rózsa Hoffmann and István Klinghammer, are not designed to improve language teaching. Instead, they are designed to make Hungary’s dismal statistics look better.
Let’s start with Rózsa Hoffmann. It was about two years ago that the former high school teacher of Russian and French kept insisting that not one but two foreign languages should be taught in the schools and that graduating seniors should take their official state examinations prior to entering college. If they didn’t get that piece of paper they wouldn’t be able to continue their education. At that point critics of Hoffmann, who were numerous, argued that foreign language teaching in the public schools is not up to the task of preparing students to pass the Hungarian statewide exams.
Hoffmann had other fanciful ideas as well. Perhaps inspired by Viktor Orbán, who regretted learning English first because it was “too easy,” she wanted to shift the current emphasis on English to German or French.
Now, in a seeming about-face, this woman is supporting a system under which trade schools will offer a foreign language two 45-minute periods a week, down from three hours a week. With 90 minutes of classes a week there’s no way the student will be able to pass even the lowest level of the statewide foreign language examination called B1. And let’s assume that this student is actually learning a trade connected to tourism where knowing foreign languages is a must. For these students Hoffmann came up with a new, lower-level A1 examination which, according to most experts, might be enough to ask where the train station is but not enough to understand the answer.
It seems that it would be relatively easy to pass this A1-type of exam which, I understand, is no longer offered in other countries of the European Union. Its introduction would certainly not help foreign language fluency in Hungary. But, as commentators point out, the introduction of such a low-level exam would give a boost to the current dismal statistics. A site that gives a sense of the situation in Europe can be found here. Hungarian statistics are bad even in comparison to other countries in the region. If Hoffmann managed to introduce a new lower-level exam, perhaps the statistics would improve somewhat.
The other problem occurs at the university level. As things stand now, one needs to pass a B2-type exam in order to receive a diploma. Between 20 and 22 percent of students who completed all other requirements for a degree cannot receive their diploma because they are unable to pass their foreign language exam. István Klinghammer, who is in charge of higher education, came up with a solution “to rationalize the irrational requirements.” His solution would increase the number of graduates by 15 to 18 percent. In his opinion there are certain fields that simply don’t require the knowledge of a foreign language. Well, that’s an easy fix.
Indeed, one way or another Hungary needs more university graduates. According to the educational strategy of the European Union, by 2020 the percentage of university graduates in the 30- to 34-year-old group should reach 40%. Currently, the EU average is 34.6%; Hungary’s is far behind at 21.1%. Considering that the number of students entering university has dropped considerably since the introduction of very high tuition fees, achieving the desired number of university graduates by 2020 is most unlikely. But getting rid of language requirements in certain fields would improve the statistics in one fell swoop.
Here again ideas on foreign language requirements have changed radically since 2011 when the ministry wanted to demand that university students pass not B2 but C1 (advanced) language examinations from 2016 on. The usual chaos.
The inability of college graduating classes to pass their language exams is acute in all but the best universities. Top Budapest universities fare well: at the Budapest Technological Institute only 4.5% of the students leave without a diploma; at the Corvinus University of Economics it’s 11%. But elsewhere in the capital the numbers are grim. At the University of Óbuda 35% of the students don’t pass their language exams. At the National Közszolgálati Egyetem, the brainchild of the Orbán government where army and police officers as well as future civil servants are supposed to be trained, 35.5% of the students cannot get their diplomas. In the provinces the situation is even worse. In Kaposvár 50% of the students end up without a diploma; in Nyíregyháza 45% don’t graduate.
The reaction to the lowering of standards was immediate. Both the Association of Schools Teaching Foreign Languages and the Association for Language Knowledge protested. The problem is, according to the spokesman of the Association for Language Knowledge, that students are not required to use foreign-language materials during the course of their studies. Moreover, how can the quality of Hungarian higher education improve if students are unable to read the latest academic publications that appear mostly in English and German? It is a vicious circle. The quality of universities is low in part because the teaching is based only on Hungarian-language material, and the language skills of the students are low because they are not required to keep practicing and improving.
And finally, a few words about the B1, B2 and C1 exams. I tried a couple of sample tests and found that a few of the answers I gave were wrong. I asked an American friend of mine to take a look at a “fill in the blank” exam. This highly educated native speaker said that the test was “a mess.” I do hope that we just happened on an exception, not the rule.