New Hungarian “language strategies”

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.

It's a;; greek to me

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.

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45 comments

  1. All movies on television and almost all movies outside the very few art cinemas are dubbed in Hungary. This is very good for the actors and actresses to get supplementary income, but very bad for the rest of the people.

    To a large part, this single fact contributes to the lack of knowledge of foreign languages in Hungary.

    The situation is much better in other Eastern European countries.

    Look at the map at
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dubbing_%28filmmaking%29#Voice-over

  2. The nicest thing about the policies of the Hungarian gvmnt is that last year they helped me lose all my jobs with language studios.Language teaching has been banned from being promoted by the state in companies since Jan 1st last year which means not only managers but also workers were able to learn at their workplaces for free but now very few companies spend their möney on teaching their employees.
    Moreover, from last January on, no language school teacher can apply for an EU grant…We are sinners because our language level is high. (I’m a self-employed English teacher who doesn’t get a job in schools as I’m too old: 58, so I should be paid more than a beginner.)
    Now there are courses for language learing almost for free financed by the EU but the people of Budapest and middle Hungary have all used up their percentage so now only people with a valid address from other parts of Hungary can learn a foreign language in Budapest with EU money…Chaos.

  3. Yes, Tappanach is right. Even with the new HD tenhnique, films cannot be watched in their original language. Luckily, more and more youngsters speak English and write in English while using the net.
    In the summer of 2010, after the new gvmnt had started working, CNN was banned from our homes as the channel was highly critical of the new gvmnt.

  4. They do seem to be in a muddle with their second-language strategies, that’s for sure. Nevertheless, despite the failings in the education system, many young Hungarians sign up for private language lessons and enter themselves for exams, in order to improve their employment prospects. Not ideal, I know, but it speaks well of the attitude of a significant number of young people here.

    Still, at least we are better off than the US, where only just over half of higher education institutions require foreign language study for a baccalaureate; or Canada, where two thirds of higher education institutions don’t even have a second-language policy; or the UK, where more than a third of university foreign language departments have closed in the last ten years.

  5. As someone who has a Master’s degree from one of the top-rated universities in the US, I must say — university degrees are overrated. I hope both the US and Europe will begin to wean themselves of this ridiculous fascination with people who have degrees and begin to see that a degree does not determine a person’s capabilities for anything. Let’s not forget — Jozsef Torgyan is an egyetemi doktor.

  6. “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.”

    I think this is the key element here. A language course is worth nothing if it’s a few hours a week but the students are not even thinking about them otherwise. That’s just simply not how the brain is designed to learn a language in adulthood. You have to find ways to use it somehow and there’s no other way. The best solution would be to switch the entire Master level to English and use English textbooks. Surely, some kids would be struggling but at least they wouldn’t be sold a lie that they are going to be competitive on their field without a minimal level of English. (Believe me, it doesn’t take much to be able to read a textbook.)

  7. anglawbp :

    Still, at least we are better off than the US, where only just over half of higher education institutions require foreign language study for a baccalaureate; or Canada, where two thirds of higher education institutions don’t even have a second-language policy; or the UK, where more than a third of university foreign language departments have closed in the last ten years.

    Very true but there are couple of reasons for this. One, and that is a very important one, English-speakers get along just fine without knowing another language.Smaller language groups can’t afford this luxury. Second,in the United States at least most people are never required to speak another language. That’s not the case in Europe where you travel a few hundred kilometers and you are in a different country with a different language. If there is not need, why bother, says the ordinary citizen. With the UK the situation is the same. Most of them will say: I get along just fine with English anywhere.There is little incentive to learn another language.

    But when we, Hungarian refugees ended up in another country, we had no choice. Sink or swim. That is not the case with English speakers. This is a blessing in one way and a curse another way,

  8. Jano :

    A language course is worth nothing if it’s a few hours a week but the students are not even thinking about them otherwise. That’s just simply not how the brain is designed to learn a language in adulthood. You have to find ways to use it somehow and there’s no other way. The best solution would be to switch the entire Master level to English and use English textbooks. Surely, some kids would be struggling but at least they wouldn’t be sold a lie that they are going to be competitive on their field without a minimal level of English. (Believe me, it doesn’t take much to be able to read a textbook.)

    You hit the nail on the head. I remember that in the Netherlands already in the 1950s on the textbooks of certain subjects, for example of economics, were in English. So were the lectures.

    There must be a purpose for learning a language.

  9. Eva S. Balogh :

    anglawbp :
    Still, at least we are better off than the US, where only just over half of higher education institutions require foreign language study for a baccalaureate; or Canada, where two thirds of higher education institutions don’t even have a second-language policy; or the UK, where more than a third of university foreign language departments have closed in the last ten years.

    Very true but there are couple of reasons for this. One, and that is a very important one, English-speakers get along just fine without knowing another language.Smaller language groups can’t afford this luxury. Second,in the United States at least most people are never required to speak another language. That’s not the case in Europe where you travel a few hundred kilometers and you are in a different country with a different language. If there is not need, why bother, says the ordinary citizen. With the UK the situation is the same. Most of them will say: I get along just fine with English anywhere.There is little incentive to learn another language.
    But when we, Hungarian refugees ended up in another country, we had no choice. Sink or swim. That is not the case with English speakers. This is a blessing in one way and a curse another way,

    This seems to be less an argument for a language qualification at university level than one for everyone in Europe learning English. Actually, of course, most people who travel outside Hungary do have a good level of English, the de facto lingua franca. Whether they could pass an exam is another question entirely (as you indicated with your observations about the test you sampled).

    A bigger question for universities here, and in the other countries I mentioned, is are there benefits from the study of language for its own sake.

  10. lutring magdolna :
    Yes, Tappanach is right. Even with the new HD tenhnique, films cannot be watched in their original language. Luckily, more and more youngsters speak English and write in English while using the net.
    In the summer of 2010, after the new gvmnt had started working, CNN was banned from our homes as the channel was highly critical of the new gvmnt.

    I think you only hope to get away with all your lies.
    CNN is not banned, I can watch it anytime I want. Same as with all other channels; none are banned.
    And the state did not forbid any language schools to get promoted, if that’s what you mean but all you write is a mess. There is no single new law concerning any language schools whatsoever. There is absolutely no change at all.

  11. I will never forget it when our Rozsa The Riveter gave a press conference sometime in 2011 about her genius ideas and started to sing to audience
    “Quand trois poules vont au champ”. It was pathetic. Yeah. The old chick on the fields …

    Right. If you can’t fix the statistics fix the methodology. We are good at it. Just look at the proliferation of think tanks in Hungary and how they come up with everything and the opposite at the same time about everything depending on political affiliations.

    To me even the idea of requiring language exams in colleges was the same thing somehow. To me it meant the admission of incompetence to reform the system. So they went “we cant teach you but you will take care of it somehow and pass”. Case closed.

    Another aspect is as we talked about it before is the language isolation is actually helping them to carry out the biggest brainwash in Hungaria history since Matyas Rakosi. Less information the people understand the better. Plus emigration will also be less.

    Just to round it up add the anti-American sentiment to explain their aversion to the English language. English smells like freedom. They just cant take it.

  12. I happen to believe that there is a huge difference between a diploma at whatever stage and an abitur, matura or baccalaureate. The latter three (all continental European) mean that you have acquired the right to enter a university – and, of course, with it comes the attestation of a working knowledge of a mix of languages (two ancient and one modern, one ancient and two modern or three modern). If you want to enroll in the philosophical faculty at Basel university you have to take a crash course in Latin – first.

    Again: This is all before you actually begin your university studies. To me that is the the logical sequence. First of all that way you can understand essential material that wasn’t written in your mother tongue and incorporate it in your studies, secondly you have some idea of the mentality of other cultures, know at least a little bit of their literature. Everything else would be parochial.

    That the Anglo-Saxons thought for a long while that they didn’t need this aspect of education hasn’t helped them at all. Interestingly, though, scholars of Latin and Greek in Britain and Germany had an intensive, eye-to-eye discourse – all in their own languages – in the 19th century.

    So, to have to pass a language exam in order to have your university diploma accepted is meshugge. Nobody should be allowed to enter a university without some acceptable and useful foreign-language competence.

  13. I know we agreed that trolls should be ignored, but I must clear up something that Johnny Boy wrote. He is right in that no language courses as such were outright banned, and still what lutring magdolna wrote is absolutely true. What the government did was to take away the tax break that went with these courses and therefore most firms discontinued them, having lost the incentive. As for CNN, again no ban, but I believe some cable companies have taken it out of their packages, although mine still has it. All these instances just prove that the ‘soft dictatorship’ that we currently live under is slowly, but surely and with stealth is getting harder.

    As for why people should learn languages? Yes, anglo-saxons are lazy because everybody speaks and understands theirs, but as Prof. Balogh quite rightly writes that luxury is not afforded to a small nation like Hungary. However, looking at it from where I am standing the most important issue is not language competency, but what the knowledge of a foreign language gives you. It opens your horizons, it assures access to foreign news, so your own government cannot totally brainwash you inside your own country and last, but definitely not least at university and in your professional life it enables you to be up to date with the latest developments in your field worldwide and thus not be left behind. That is the most important!

  14. Re CNN and other channels:
    We have a “basic package” of cable tv channels which doesn’t include CNN anymore – of course we could get a more expensive package …

    Re language teaching in Hungary:

    I’ve surely written about this before, but I’ll repeat it. When I met my wife’s son the first time and we had a conversation in English I was really astonished that he didn’t seem to know the difference between he/she, his/hers etc (you know in Hungarian it’s all the same …) – until he told me that his English teacher had “explained” it to her pupils that this was too difficult for them, so they just should ignore it …

    And after many years of speaking some kind of pidgin English it’s really difficult to overcome this – but he’s managed, not only because we converse so often but also because he uses English a lot every day in his work.

    People from other smaller countries with their own languages (like Benelux or Scandinavia) have known this instinctively for a long time that in order to have success you must know at least one of your big neighbours’ languages, so I’m no longer surprised when meeting a Swede or a Belgian that they speak good English and German or French.

    And of course you are right when you say that language training has to be part of basic education – before going to university …

    PS – a funny story re the requirement of two foreign languages:

    Our daughter in law speaks English quite well, but her German is rather basic so in order to get her university degree she had the marvellous idea of learning and taking the exam in Esperanto – that wasn’t too difficult it seems …

    Whether she’ll evr use that new found knowledge, I’m not so sure about.

  15. The ‘A1’, ‘B1’, ‘B2’ levels Eva refers to are the Common European Framework levels for language learning (Council of Europe) and are used by every major examining board for assessing a learner’s capabilities (Cambridge Exams, IELTS, etc.).

    Although ‘A1’ might sound nice, and at the top, it is actually the lowest possible level of language learning (C2 is ‘proficient’). At A1, a learner can be expected to say his/her name, basic likes/dislikes, say basic numbers, etc. But nothing more. It is a ‘starter’ level.

    Moreover, there is no international examining board anywhere, whatsoever which would provide any kind of certificate for ‘passing’ an A1 level. (Cambridge have an exam for passing ‘A2’ – the ‘Preliminary English Test’ but very few people bother taking this, because there’s nothing you can realistically do with this certificate).

    So, yes, having an ‘A1’ test in Hungary could be passed by virtually anyone (including mynah birds and parrots, I suppose) who can say ‘My name is …”. Pretty meaningless, though, apart from boosting statistics.

    Meanwhile, the number of Hungarians taking the IELTS exam every month (you need an IELTS certificate at ‘B2’ level if you want to study at a British university) continues to be consistently high.

  16. OT – Court ruled to rerun Baja election in the district where the irregularities were. Is this a genuine victory for the law or a hiccup? If former, God save the judge!

  17. Jano :
    The best solution would be to switch the entire Master level to English and use English textbooks. Surely, some kids would be struggling but at least they wouldn’t be sold a lie that they are going to be competitive on their field without a minimal level of English. (Believe me, it doesn’t take much to be able to read a textbook.)

    In the Nordic countries, where especially in the younger generations “everybody” speaks (and is supposed to speak) English, linguists (like myself) have started pulling the brake: no, we don’t necessarily need all university programmes in English, and we must ensure the future of the national language as a language of science and learning, not banish it into the kitchen… But there are lots of alternatives between endangering the future of the national language (by letting English take over all “higher” and more prestigious domains) and condemning young people to a dead end of virtual monolingualism, as Hungary seems to be doing.

    I don’t believe that the solution is in the university programmes or in obligatory language exams of any kind. (I did take a couple of obligatory language exams as part of my university studies in Finland in the 1980s, but that was a formality – whatever I know of my two main working languages, German and English, comes from school, and from practical experience with university textbooks, international communication, and reading lots of literature.) Whatever is done should be done already at school. And it’s not as much about which languages are taught – it’s about how they are taught and by what kind of people.

    In my view, the real problem is the Hungarian school system and the teacher education. The decision-makers who, after the system transitions in 1949 and 1989, let foreign languages be taught by hurriedly re-trained teachers, were scandalously ignorant of what language teaching means. The planning of language teaching is just a very typical example of stupid autocracy rampant in Hungarian political decision-making throughout the 20th and the beginning 21st century. And the people, being just as ignorant as the decision-makers, have never really questioned or challenged it.

    This is what makes me really furious. The Hungarian school has failed, but the people refuse to understand what it means – they just send their kids to private language courses if they can afford, or blame themselves for not knowing English well enough. (I have many good colleagues who believed, as they were told, that studying German will suffice for international academic life and contacts – and now they are 40 and 50, supposed to work in an international research project and desperately studying English because not even in international German studies can you manage with German alone.) Or they blame their language which is so different from all other European languages (but how come the Finns and even the post-Soviet Estonians speak English?), or the stupid language exam system. Well, no language exam system can help if the foundation – language teaching at school – is no good.

    I keep seeing this with the numerous Hungarian students who are now flooding my university department in Vienna. Basically, all of them should have a language exam in German, and most of them do have a certificate of some kind. Still, many of them struggle with the language and have difficulties even understanding the German-language course materials. Although, as Jano said, it really doesn’t take much to be able to read a textbook.

  18. What makes the matter worse is that our beloved regime has now decided to target the private language schools with its typical corruption vindictiveness and rank incompetence.
    Apologies for the article being in Hungarian:
    http://index.hu/belfold/2013/09/16/a_nyelviskolak_torkan_akad_az_uj_szabalyolyozas/

    As I understand it, all language schools will now need to provide a huge financial guarantee (a la travel agents) to compensate students in event of bankruptcy! Furthermore, any teacher wishing to teach lawyers, doctors, accountants etc will need not only a teaching qualification but also the same level of professional qualification as held by his or her students, ie you won’t be able to teach doctors unless you are a qualified doctor yourself.

    Finally, the coup de grace is that schools as from 1st September can only employ accredited teachers… the only problem is that the regime has forgotten to also include what the basis of that accreditation should be.

    The EU tender to provide “free” lessons for up to 3 months stunk again to high heaven, schools were opened on the Monday in order to apply for the tender on the Friday. They got, because of party connections, the contract. Only problem is that they had no teachers which were then subcontracted from the real schools who had, unbelievably, failed in the original tender.

  19. Some time ago I wrote joking (here or on pol.hu) “You don’t need an education to raise pigs” …

    It seems to me that Fidesz really believes in this – education is only necessary for a small ruling class.

    Eva’s numbers about the significantly lower numbers of university graduates in Hungary compared to the rest of Europe show the same concept and the regular talking by Orbán etc about “making Hungary the production center of Europe” amplifies this.

    Do they really want a return to the feudal society of the late 19th/early 20th Century in Hungary ? Or are they just too stupid to understand the modern world ?

    PS:

    An din addition the academic system seems to concentrate on technical knowledge of all kinds: engineers, doctors, maybe lawyers – a liberal education is a waste for them …

    Compare this with the academic level of Hungary under Austrian rule with its rich academic life – but of course (too … in some people’s eyes) many of those academics, writers etc were Jews …

  20. Xenophobia and Insular attitudes.

    At the gut level. All of it wrapped in a cloak of a Taboo theme.

    The entire Foreign Language Disorder in Hungary comes down to this one basic Hungarian traditional stance.

    Fidesz is currently a primary and intense perpetrator of such attitudes. The game is self-perpetuating. Narrow vision. Narrow thinking and analysis. Inability to critically see self or attitudes. Taboo thematic.

    All this causes gridlock. Like a cement block that’s tied to your feet as you are thrown into the water.

    Slow asphyxiation or drowning. ‘Western Europe and thinking’ is the largest body of “water” surrounding Hungary. And since there’s no liberal, open, unthreatening discussion here, the feet to move to change is unlikely to have a long-term effect.

    Additionally the above is is either scoffed at or best denied cause the self-perpetuating requirement is that it be considered a TABOO subject.

    Cico vicioso

  21. @JGrant

    This is a Pyrrhic victory. What happened in Baja was a breach of “campaign silence” in the pre-2014 electoral system. Fidesz has deleted “campaign silence” from the the electoral law effective January 1, 2014.

  22. tappanch :
    @JGrant
    This is a Pyrrhic victory. What happened in Baja was a breach of “campaign silence” in the pre-2014 electoral system. Fidesz has deleted “campaign silence” from the the electoral law effective January 1, 2014.
    So the opposition should start organizing the transportation for its voters NOW.

    Couldn’t agree more. I lived in the UK for nearly 40 years, there nobody had the slightest objection to giving lifts to old ladies to the poling stations. I suppose the situation in Hungary is slightly different as in a country with such long traditions of electoral fraud, it would simply mean packing, like they did in Baja.

    As for it being a Pyrrhic victory, I suspected as much. However, I still think that the judge(s) that handed down that judgement can probably say good bye to his/her/their career.

  23. tappanch :

    @JGrant

    This is a Pyrrhic victory. What happened in Baja was a breach of “campaign silence” in the pre-2014 electoral system. Fidesz has deleted “campaign silence” from the the electoral law effective January 1, 2014.

    First of I was disappointed. Campaign silence? It was more than that. However, I received a note from someone who quoted me the exact wording of the law which actually reads thus:
    „a kampánycsend megsértésének minősül a választópolgárok választói akaratának befolyásolása, így különösen: a választópolgárok számára a jelölt vagy a jelölő szervezet által ingyenesen juttatott szolgáltatás (szavazásra történő szervezett szállítás, étel-ital adása.” So, it includes organized transportation, giving voters food or drink. In general, free services.

    I think this is significant. I also think that I wouldn’t like to be in the judge’s shoes.

  24. Actually there is a restriction on “campaign activity” on voting day within 150 meters of the voting places, according to 143. §.

    So free food, drink or money can be given & voters must be dropped outside the 150 meter radius, in my interpretation.

  25. Eva,this article about the situation with language learning in Hungary is something that has been on my mind a lot lately. I have a few private students of English,some of whom are either at primary school or secondary school. Sometimes they show me what they’re doing in their English lessons at school. Here’s an example of something I read the other day,shown to me by a high school/pre-intermediate student (who’s preparing for the Eretsegi/school leaving exams) It’s one of the passages the students are expected to learn by heart: ‘ABOUT MY FATHER: He’s a manageable husband,although I wouldn’t say he’s hen-pecked. He tends to fly off the handle,but he brings home the bacon. He’s the breadwinner’

    There are many passages like this, as well as vocabulary lists, which students have to memorize for homework. Then, in lesson time,they get tests,translations,and exercises. According to this particular student,she can only remember one occasion in the last few weeks where they had a group discussion in English,to practise their oral skills.
    Students often have to learn outdated English,and too many words and expressions which are not commonly used. I can’t imagine a situation where the above passage ‘About my father’ would be used. And I can’t even remember the last time I heard or used expressions like ‘henpecked’ I’ve seen the same problem with primary school students. They often have very long lists of vocabulary,but words which are so rarely used by a native speaker. For example,50 kinds of fruits and vegetables,or various parts of an animal (horn,tusk,snout..) But how on earth is this useful in the real world!? Without enough oral practise (dialogues or discussions) words are like bricks without mortar.
    The same thing with grammar. Students can often tell you what the ‘Present Perfect’ is,but can’t tell you the time. A lot of emphasis is put on grammar,and yet,again,it doesn’t seem to equip students with speaking skills. This is just something I’ve noticed,and experienced,so I don’t want to generalize.

  26. Nicky, exactly. The teaching of foreign languages (or Hungarian as well) at Hungarian schools (in general – of course, there may be exceptions) is based on scandalously outdated didactic concepts and textbooks and assigned to incompetent and inadequately trained teachers. This because the decision-makers are either ignorant and stupid (how could people who have no idea of speaking or learning foreign languages make intelligent decisions on language teaching?) or arrogant and elitist (we only need a handful of people who really speak foreign languages, and their parents or mentors can afford to get them foreign private teachers or language courses abroad).

    And this can go on because of insular thinking (extra Hungariam non est vita), and because there is somebody who profits from the private language schools and courses and the stupid language exam system. Instead of ensuring that they speak the language, give somebody some power to hand out certificates for non-existent language skills, and everybody will be happy… And generations after generations believe that it is normal that you won’t learn a language at school but will need a nice Nicky to give you some private lessons. Isn’t it simply an “Armutszeugnis”, as we say in German, a sign showing that the system has failed?

  27. It’s incredible how ineffective language teaching in schools is. As an English teacher myself, I can only agree with Nicky, but according to my experiences, the problem lies elsewhere. Students are not communicated the fact that to get results out of language learning you need to put in a lot of time and effort. Just like with any other subject. And even if language learning is something totally different than learning history or maths, it’s still true. It’s not enough to take part in those two lessons per week (okay, so this number is laughable in itself) it’s not enough to do that one single exercise in the workbook for homework. And students can clearly feel that something is amiss, that what they are doing does not bring results. So they start not to care. And as for grammar. It IS important. Even more so, because there’s nothing else they can compensate for that fact that there’s not enough exposure to the language. And not everybody is talented in languages. But if they have a solid foundation in grammar it can take them a long way. But teachers don’t explain grammar properly either. One of my private students told me she had to explain to her daughter what ‘present perfect’ is by using the notes she made in my class. The topic (which is the make-it-or-break-it of the English language) was delt with in one, single example sentence, which didn’t even have much to do with the topic anyway. And it was one of the better schools out there. The situation is sad, indeed.

  28. These descriptions of language learning in Hungarian schools remind me very much of my youth (55 years ago …) in a German gymnasium – so my wife seems to be right when she says that in many respects Hungary lags 50 years after Western Europe ?

    A bit OT:

    I had similar problems – after nine years of learning French (4 lessons every week) I couldn’t read the menu or talk to a waitress in a French restaurant …

    And at the hairdresser a few days ago I talked to a nice Hungarian lady in her fifties who’s an English teacher who complimented me on my “very good English” – she couldn’t afford to travel, hasn’t been to England even once …

    Of course for the children of rich people learning English or whatever will be no problem – just as in Kadar times …

  29. Nicky :
    Eva,this article about the situation with language learning in Hungary is something that has been on my mind a lot lately.

    This has been a running topic in our house for a number of years. First because our kids attended English classes because that was part of the curriculum and secondly because my wife teaches and tutors English to kids at the grade 1 and 2 level.

    On the first point the kids were always coming home snickering about some serious mistakes the teacher had made. It really taught them to question teachers… which wasn’t a bad lesson but pity the poor kids who didn’t know the difference. On the second point my wife completely rejected the Hungarian methods and created her own program. The feedback from teachers who have worked in the UK is that kids coming from her program are better prepared for what comes next then kids coming from the normal regime. All the kids had the same number of hours in the classroom.

    The results suggest that while the number of hours is important, it’s not the only factor in learning language. It also suggests that the traditional Hungarian focus on rote learning simply doesn’t work for language training especially at that age. The biggest factor IMHO is motivation. One of the biggest motivators is usefulness. So, the question became (and hence the conversations at home centered on); how do you make a language useful to a 6 or 7 year old and barring that, how do you motivate these kids to learn, really learn. Since play is the biggest concern of kids at that age what my wife did was make the language useful in play. And thats all she does; she just simply plays in English.

    As un-revolutionary as this idea may sound the results have been kids that are energized and motivated to learn English without realizing it. They are excited about going to class because they know they are going to have fun after spending the day sitting at a desk. Even the “slower” kids show very reasonable levels of proficiency.

    The support from admin and staff has been mixed. First, she needs room devoid of desks. She’s alway initially given such a room but the school is overcrowded and so keeping the room has been challenging. It’s a constant battle to remind people that a room with desks doesn’t work for this English class. Secondly to play she needs some “toys” and of course there is no room in the school budget for them. For example, she uses a parachute for circle games. If the kids are holding onto the parachute (which they love to do) they can’t be running around. But these are things that we purchase from our own pocket. And the problems go on and on to the point you have to wonder if it’s all worth it. But then the kids are always smiling and many of them try to speak English to me if I happen to be around for some reason and I must say, when they do try, they do a pretty good job of communicating.

  30. Seal Driver :
    As someone who has a Master’s degree from one of the top-rated universities in the US, I must say — university degrees are overrated. I hope both the
    US and Europe will begin to wean themselves of this ridiculous fascination with people who have degrees and begin to see that a degree does not determine a person’s capabilities for anything. Let’s not forget — Jozsef Torgyan is an egyetemi doktor.

    – Yeah, and Torgyán having a degree is still one of the smallest problems, I believe.
    How I see it, the real problem lays somewhere around the quality and the usefulness of the actual knowledge, which is particularly pregnant if you look at the languages. Graduating from a high school after four years of studying a language doesn’t prepare even you to survive a week in a native country.
    When it comes to a university degree, most often the students totally unprepared to use the language they’ve learned in a professional environment, let alone, that on the level what supposedly required by their degree.

    In short, if you – or anyone – intend to properly use a language, let say in an environment what presumably the professional level of the education would allow, you’d probably fell short in case if you relay sorely on the language you’ve learned at the university.
    With this new regulations having applied, the outcome will be even worse.

    Still, I guess, this is somehow good news to ‘lutring magdolna’ and other professional language teachers – the somehow more ambitious students with financial means have no choice, but seek help from outside, if they want to take the hike from Orbanistan, even more intently than today.

  31. LwiiH :
    The results suggest that while the number of hours is important, it’s not the only factor in learning language. It also suggests that the traditional Hungarian focus on rote learning simply doesn’t work for language training especially at that age.

    You are absolutely right. “The traditional Hungarian focus on rote learning” is what made the catastrophe in Hungarian language teaching possible after the system transitions in 1949 and 1989 (re-training teachers to teach Russian, or re-training teachers of Russian to teach other languages). If you believe that language learning is just learning vocables and rules by heart, then you can also seriously believe that languages can be taught by teachers who are a couple of lessons ahead of their students, that is, by people who cannot even speak the language.

    And it’s not just foreign language education that is destroyed by this strange idea of teaching and learning. My colleagues in Hungarian philology complain about the same: there is this stupid sentence analysis which has very little to do with modern linguistics, and wherever something could be analysed and interpreted in three different ways, the teacher will only accept the one analysis that’s in the book – because s/he has also learnt these things by rote and has no idea of what the whole thing is based on.

    Chayenne7, I absolutely agree that grammar is important. Or, rather, language awareness, the understanding that there is something like a system out there that might lead your hand while you are struggling to learn and understand the new language. Different students have different needs, different talents and different strategies of learning – some do it in a more structured way, some need more motivation and a more communication-based approach. And a good teacher will always create an individual, flexible mix of methods and approaches, geared to the needs of her/his students – if the curriculum allows it, trusts him/her and gives her/him the resources needed. Which doesn’t seem to be always the case in Hungary. Even if the teacher were intelligent and adequately trained…

    Wolfi, actually these descriptions are not so very far away from my kids’ experiences in an Austrian school. The philosophy of a traditional German Gymnasium is the same: it’s not really so important whether you really learn Latin or some other languages traditionally taught, the main thing is that you have studied some Latin or French or whatever which makes you a member of the upper social strata.

    Which leads us to one of the main problems behind all this, a Central European problem which is particularly blatant in Hungary but present at least in the German-speaking countries as well. If the school only serves for socialising and storing the kids (while the parents are working) or providing upper-class kids with certain upper-class markers, then the teacher’s didactic abilities are not that important. (At an Austrian Gymnasium, teachers are not responsible for teaching and explaining things properly. After all, those who don’t get it – and whose parents cannot teach them at home or hire a private teacher to help them – don’t have to stay at the grammar school, let them go the “Hauptschule” and join the proletariat…) Teachers are underpaid and under-respected, nobody wants to be the teacher. (Even in happy Austria, I keep hearing from my colleagues at the university that whatever the subject, the “Lehramt” students are the dumbest and laziest ones.)

    Sorry, got carried away. But the main problem is beyond language teaching and learning. The whole Hungarian school system should be reformed. It’s just that the school system is a reflection of the whole society and its values.

  32. Brief report from the Solidarity demonstration

    People could be squeezed between the entrance of the Tunnel and the roundabout on Adam Clark square, so my estimate was two thousand people. The speeches and the music was better than usual, and we marched to Andrassy street 60 (moving crowds always look more numerous than the stationary ones). The toppling of the Stalin-looking Orban sculpture was a good idea.

  33. Off topic rant

    Francis :
    Here is a link to an interesting article. http://www.budapesttimes.hu/2013/09/29/bok%C2%AD%C2%ADros-comes-out-swinging/ which said: “and its commitment to free market principles”.

    Sorry, but outside of few academics, nobody is interested about free markets in Hungary. People here only want to get Kádár era back. And Viktor is bringing it with vengeance. Order in the streets, people on the workplaces, cheap food and booze. Plus modern entertainment of course. Communist era destroyed a lot in Hungarian soul and sometimes I wonder that is the damage so much that the people are beyond repair…

  34. It would be “nice”, following the previous discussion to have a unified message.

    From my perspective what is needed is clear goals of language learning. For the first few years of learning a language (English in this example), for the needs of today, this would on an average level include a. the need for understanding a tourist question and replying in a helpful manner.
    b. the ability to describe directions and sights to be seen.
    c. in case of travel abroad, the ability to ask relevant questions and understnad the answers by non-native languge speakers (eg talking English in Austria and getting a reply in English from an Austrian, etc.)
    d. in case of looking for a job how to pose relevant questions in English
    e. understanding films in the original English language.
    f. using English on the internet.

    All-in-all the languge skills needed today are quite different from those of yesterday, due to increased physical mobility and international contact via the internet and at work.

    If society here (in Hungary) would function as an open place for dialogue, avenues would already exist in order to influence language training methods.

    The problem as others have also noted is that society is not willing to THINK or to trust the potential good-will of strangers…!!!!

    Nations can be observed to have populations that are friendly or hostile toward people they do not know personally. The hostile attitude in Hungary squeezes all potnetial dialogue to the strict minimum.

    The language-learning debacle is one more symptomatic element in a dysfuctional society.

  35. The new level that will be accepted at state level is A2, not the lowest level A1 – see http://eduline.hu/nyelvtanulas/2013/9/11/A2es_uj_nyelvvizsga_kovetelmenyek_PA2PJB

    For a clear picture of what a person at the various levels should be able to cope with see http://europass.cedefop.europa.eu/en/resources/european-language-levels-cefr

    On a broader perspective, the damage being done to language and communicative competence in Hungary goes much deeper. For the last two years, through policy choices, tax initiatives and direct intervention in the language teaching market, Fidesz have pretty much destroyed most language tuition in businesses, as well as schools.

    First with tax changes last year, businesses were no longer able to claim back these training expenses. Personally, though it was bad for language schools, I also thought this welcome, as it goes against human nature to truly appreciate things given to you for free.

    Early this year, with the help of EU money, lots of free language courses for unemployed people were provided. However, the companies that got the opportunity to run these courses were those close to Fidesz. Specifically, International House (IH), Dover, DFT-Hungária, New York Nyelvikola,.. See http://hvg.hu/hvgfriss/2013.39/201339_a_nyelvtanitasi_piac_ujraosztasa_babeli_zur

    IH has always been extremely close to Fidesz, with all language training for PMs and Orbán’s children being provided by the school. As such, the taxman has always turned a blind eye to their creative accounting in paying for the stream of native teachers that pass through their doors.

    I was speaking to a friend who runs a specialist language school last week and they tell me things are pretty dire for average language school, though they themselves survive well, as they don’t compete in the mass market A1, A2, B1, B2 area for general language exams.

    Despite the rigging of this market–as with all other markets Fidesz take an interest in–I feel the removal of the necessity to pass a language examination for all students is a good decision.

    The language teaching business in Hungary has been a joke for years. Last year Origo (perhaps the oldest language testing authorities in Hungary) was found to be selling B2 and C1 examination passes for around 350,000 HUF (more than a thousand Euros) and 500,000 HUF (close to 2,000 Euros) respectively. Worse still, I know practicising lawyers who quite blatantly tell me their sister or brother sat their examination for them. I was in a meeting four months ago when my colleague received a call from a friend, he broke off the meeting to dictate answers to examination questions to them.

    So whilst language teaching may be completely distorted and messed up in Hungary, I think it is a joke to pretend that Hungarians really care about this. They are only interested in finding that kiskapu (loophole) that will enable them to gain advantage at the expense of those around them.

    And that holds for almost everyone.The few exceptions that do exist do not rely on government handouts, structure their own personal development plans and have international focus. I hold out no hope for the majority, they deserve everything they get.

    It will be a good thing not to see incompetent fools waving pieces of paper at me claiming that they have skills and abilities they clearly do not possess.

  36. If there’s as much incomprehension between people of various languages, should we not be learning how to coimmunicte with diagrams and sound instead of words…

    Eg. you wanna find a gas-station: dont be ashamed to get outa the drivers seat and go to the gasoline tank of your car and act like you’re trying to fill’her up??? with the appropriate pishhh sound???

    A languge teacher may not wanna teach you that… I dont get this A-1 B-1 C-1 exam routine.

    Do a communication training for foreing interaction (not foreign language interaction) for the average student, fist. Call that A-1. That by itself seems to be a problem for may people(s)

  37. Hm, just a quick thought in connection with Orbán saying “Learning English was too easy”.
    Most Hungarians can’t even speak English correctly, let alone in a way that is pleasant in any way for a native speaker. In all seriousness, 90% (in my experience) of Hungarians who can speak English speak it with an accent thicker than a neutron star. I wouldn’t call a language ‘easy’ when 9 out of 10 people can’t speak it on an acceptable level.
    (Feel free to call me a pronounciation nazi)

  38. András :
    In all seriousness, 90% (in my experience) of Hungarians who can speak English speak it with an accent thicker than a neutron star.

    In all seriousness, of those relatively few Hungarians who can speak reasonably good English, 90% spend most of their time pecking at each other’s pronunciation or grammar errors (that is, deviances from what they had learnt from their textbooks).

    Of course, many Hungarians do speak English with a thick accent, and the reasons are obvious. No exposure (thanks to the dubbing in cinema and tv), badly trained teachers, and – this is a general problem in all Europe – teaching languages commences too late. We should teach the kids more languages as early as possible and not start the foreign language teaching with bored pre-teen-agers already convinced that language X is stupid because its speakers are stupid or that languages in general are girls’ stuff.

    But if Hungarians are to get over their language problems, they must learn how to speak foreign languages, even risking that they sound stupid. The “accent problem” is symptomatic of more serious failures in the system, but in itself, it’s the least of all the problems in Hungarian language education.

  39. András, the same goes for other countries/language combinations – most Germans have a horrible accent when speaking French or English …

    Some of my Schwab compatriots even speak every foreign language with a Schwab accent – that sounds really horrible, or funny in a way.

    And of course the language barrier between Europe and Asia or Africa is almost insurmountable …

    PS and totally OT:

    On the other hand you should see people’s surprise when a black opens his/her mouth and speaks perfect “Schwäbisch” – because he/she grew up here …

    So it’s really an “immersion” problem.

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