August 18, 2011

"Hungary’s government wants to dethrone English as the most common foreign language taught in Hungarian schools."

"The reason: It’s just too easy to learn."
“It is fortunate if the first foreign language learned is not English. The initial, very quick and spectacular successes of English learning may evoke the false image in students that learning any foreign language is that simple”...

Instead, the ministry department in charge of education would prefer if students “chose languages with a fixed, structured grammatical system, the learning of which presents a balanced workload, such as neo-Latin languages.”
Why is a language with a "fixed, structured grammatical system" easier to learn? And what's with Hungary's hostility to students feeling good about their capacity to learn a foreign language? I just don't believe this. I suspect that they don't want people learning English first, because it's so thoroughly empowering to know English that learning it drastically undercuts the incentive to learn any other language.

65 comments:

Bob_R said...

Who is "they?" Could be one crazy government drone.

Maguro said...

Easy to learn? America's Politico begs to differ.

chickenlittle said...

Ugh. As if anyone is about to learn their orphaned Finno-Ugric language.
_________
wv = menertly: adverb from menertia = male inertia. Something done in a typically lazy, male way is done menertly: "Joe, you vacuumed that floor menertly!"

Kevin said...

Instead, the ministry department in charge of education would prefer if students “chose languages with a fixed, structured grammatical system, the learning of which presents a balanced workload, such as neo-Latin languages.”

They can just go back to the system they had in place for fifty years, and require that everyone learns Russian.

Какая прекрасная идея!

traditionalguy said...

The Hungarians thing their young girls no longer get the best chance to marry a millionaire like the Gabor sisters did by seducing in English.

They will do better with Farsi and Chinese, or Texan sweet talk.

Another reason we need jobs to stay here. The American girls just need to work at it a little harder than the Hungarian beauties.

.

jimbino said...

I could not agree more. English is easy to learn because there are no standards: Amerikans have never mastered the indicative/subjunctive, active/passive, transitive/intransitive, perfect/imperfect and so on.

Now Amerikans have introduced the idea that "to each his own" is sexist! You can't imagine a more infelicitous construction than "to each their own."

Speakers of other languages, particularly those whose very nouns have a gender (Germanic, Romance) are well advised to avoid being discouraged by our politically correct feminist agenda.

By the way, "sex" is not "gender." That's the first lesson Amerikans need to learn.

chickenlittle said...

"And what's with Hungary hostility to students feeling good about their capacity to learn a foreign language?"

It's an appetite for angry.

Lucius said...

I would think German would be the next default, so why this express interest in a "neo-Latin" tongue, as they so call it?

Maybe it's some weird nationalist sentiment that they want to avoid the languages of all their potential foreign cultural, economic, or military overlords: German, Russian, English.

So what'll it be? Italian?

Maybe for some pan-slavic reason they'll adopt Rumanian and double its linguistic pool.

Kevin said...

Maybe it's some weird nationalist sentiment that they want to avoid the languages of all their potential foreign cultural, economic, or military overlords: German, Russian, English.

Russian is a neo-Latin tongue - it has conjugations and declensions like Latin does, and a highly structured grammatical system.

Although Latin managed to avoid perfective and imperfective verbs, for some reason...

MarkG said...

English is bery bery haad.

I went out with a Bolivian woman last week who's been in the US for twenty years, and doesn't speak English very well. Her solution, if we were to get serious, is for me to learn Spanish.

OneLifeLiveIt said...

The Georgia Guidestones recommended everyone to learn a global language as one of their guiding messages - my bet in on 'Chinglish' in the East a merge of Chinese and English and Spanglish in the West (a merge of Spanish and English)... not sure if anyone has espoused this before but from my travel experience this makes sense...

phx said...

It's so adorable how Jimbino thinks he understands Americans!

I wonder where he's from.

Paddy O said...

"because it's so thoroughly empowering to know English that learning it drastically undercuts the incentive to learn any other language."

This is sure true for most Americans. Even scholars. I'm required to be familiar with 5 languages (Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German), but I run up against the problem that just about everything I want to read is already translating into English, and the foreign people I want to talk to already have very good English skills.

chickenlittle said...

@MarkG: Her solution, if we were to get serious, is for me to learn Spanish.

You should retort that were she serious about an up-and-coming So. American country, she should learn Portuguese and move to Brazil.

SteveR said...

I thought the purpose of learning a foreign language was to learn a foreign language.

Suburbanbanshee said...

There's tons of stuff in Latin to read. Google Books is just one long shopwindow full of happy shiny Latin Through the Ages.

kimsch said...

In the late 80's I had to type letters in Magyar(a language I don't know) from handwritten letters written by an 80-year-old Hungarian man (the president of the company). Some I did on a teletype machine, some on a typewriter and I did pretty well from old man writing in an unknown (to me) language. It did make it better once we got Macintoshes though. If there were a mistake, I could correct the electronic version and reprint it instead of retyping the whole darn thing.

wv: vasessiv

MarkG said...

Here's the thing about foreign languages: the people who speak them don't say anything different than people who speak your native language. So what's the point of learning one, unless it's specifically targeted for relatives, business, etc.

Ann Althouse said...

"Here's the thing about foreign languages: the people who speak them don't say anything different than people who speak your native language. So what's the point of learning one, unless it's specifically targeted for relatives, business, etc."

You might want to read the literature, with the original sounds intact. I learned Italian so I could read the poetry.

David said...

Englesh bee two eazie.

Hagar said...

English is a creole language (even the Queen's English) with a very simple grammar, but a million or so words. It is a bit difficult with so much idiom, but that does not prevent you from understanding what is said or written. Then of course, there is the endearingly eccentric spellings, based on Middle English pronunciations and much at variance with modern forms of English in any locality.

All in all, a marvellous tongue!

David said...

"I learned Italian so I could read the poetry."

No wonder you drive the liberals bonkers. That's their gig.

Scott said...

I lived in Malaysia for a year and a half in the early 1990s. At the end of the British colonial period in 1957, English was the common language that the different Chinese, Indian, and Malay people spoke. The official language now is Bahasa Malaysia (similar to Indonesian), and the government wants all Malaysians to have fluency in that language. But English is the language of commerce, and all educated Malaysians speak it.

That said, Bahasa Malaysia is actually a pretty cool language. It's not inflectional. The words are spelled phonetically, no verb tenses. Words are like Lego blocks -- it's mostly about the position of each word in a sentence. "Angin saya" means "my dog"; "Saya angin" means "I am a dog".

Hungary's situation seems different. It sounds more like government-enforced cultural hegemony.

madeleine said...

As a French major and an ESL teacher with 15 years of experience teaching Europeans from several countries (including Hungary) I can say that English is, in fact, more difficult to learn than some other languages precisely because we do not follow our own rules. Take, for example,the pronunciation of these words: through, though, cough, rough. There's also the problem that most native speakers, particularly Americans, use a lot of slang and idiom, have lazy pronunciation and don't actually know any grammar. I'd much rather learn French or German where the rules are followed more closely.

chickenlittle said...

MarkG wrote: So what's the point of learning one, unless it's specifically targeted for relatives, business, etc.

From the inside of an old Latin book:

Apprendre une langue, c'est vivre de nouveau.
-anonymous

Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen.
-Goethe

You can google the translations.

Hagar said...

And still. I am translating some books from Norwegian, a language with less than a tenth of the words in English, and I am constantly running into difficulties with finding a way to translate words for which there just are no English words, sometimes even when it is the same word (about a fifth of "English" English words come from Old Norse, including just about all words having to do with the sea, seamanship, or weather), but it has taken on a quite different connotation in English.

gutless said...

Not so fast my Magyar amigos. English can present some interesting challenges. This old story illustrates this.

A tourist who is a huge fan of seafood arrives in Boston for the first time and is ready to sample the city's best. As he leaves the airport terminal he hails a cab. After he gets in, he excitedly says to the cabbie, "Hey, I'm new in town. Can you tell me a good place to get scrod?" The cabbie replies [in a thick Boston accent], "Pal, I've got to congratulate you. I've heard that question a lot over the years, but that's the first time I've ever heard it in the pluperfect subjunctive."

Ta da!

Hagar said...

And I adamantly refuse to learn grammar in any language. I hate it and will not up with it put!

chickenlittle said...

Althouse said: I learned Italian so I could read the poetry.

That so reminds me of:

Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century.


I learned Italian when I was 19 so that I speak it when I went there.
____________
wv = tratypo: "between typos"

gutless said...

Althouse said: "I learned Italian so I could read the poetry."

It's funny what motivates people. I learned Vedic Sanskrit so I could read the jokes. What a riot!

MarkG said...

chickenlittle: I'm sure those sentiments have been expressed in English many times. In fact, they translate very well.

Carol_Herman said...

HA! HA!

Around the world the kids are learning English ... because they have cell phones. Or computers. Or laptops. And, the connecting language is English. Chinese? Not so much.

Even in China they know English.

While in France, they know cheeses.

Bartender Cabbie said...

They should probably teach Ebonics. I am fluent from years in the taxi business.

Shanna said...

the foreign people I want to talk to already have very good English skills.

When I went to Paris, with my two years of French, every time I started speaking to someone in French, they switched to English. I promptly forgot most of my French.

Carol_Herman said...

Ann, Italian?

I thought all you needed to know was to add an "O" to words so Italian would come out Italian-o.

Of course, you need to add hang gestures. You can't speak Italian-O ... without flaying your arms about. And, sometimes, pinching your fingers, together.

As to English. We BORROW words! that's it's magic.

I think it was McWorter who wrote a book on this very subject. Pointing out in ONE SENTENCE ... how the words ... which we heard as a sentence ... were made up of words from other languages.

He said English survives because it borrows and blends.

McWorter, when he wrote his book lamented that the world's languages were shrinking off. He said we were down to something like 40 separate tongues ... Where once there were hundreds. Or thousands.

He said that it's only in isolated communities that languages stay complicated. (Like Eskimos having so many words to define "snow.")

But out in the open ... languages "simplify." As more and more people use them to communicate.

madAsHell said...

I've travelled. A lot.

If they see a European face, and they automatically switch into English. In China, and Korea, people will haunt tourist spots looking for European faces. They want to practice English.

Ask the Chinese how they learned English? It is always the same answer "Watching Friends"

There are a lot of Eastern Europeans in Germany. For the most part, they don't speak German. They speak English. I think Adolf may have had something to do with this.

Africa? India? Yup, English.

London?....don't go East of the Tower Bridge.

Paddy O said...

"to translate words for which there just are no English words"

This is it. Knowing the languages gives nuance and direction to meaning that far too often English, or translators, just don't show.

Which means that learning foreign languages for English speakers is still important, but it takes a lot of extra motivation because it's not so obviously important.

It's also true that just about everything I know about English grammar I learned from studying foreign languages. My public schools, I suppose, weren't even all that motivated to teach English either.

edutcher said...

Thanks to the British Empire and its Commonwealth, along with the American global reach, English is probably the most widely spoken language since Latin (or maybe attic Greek).

That said, English, with its multiple roots and myriad exceptions is probably one of the hardest languages in the world to learn.

Ann Althouse said...

You might want to read the literature, with the original sounds intact. I learned Italian so I could read the poetry.

You're a woman of many talents, Madame.

Seriously.

Paddy O said...

"When I went to Paris, with my two years of French, every time I started speaking to someone in French,"

My wife calls this being "Englished"

She spent about 4 years in France, most of it fully immersed among the French in a town near Toulouse, so her French is very good but it still happened to her on occasion. It's a badge of honor for her when she's in Paris and they don't talk back in English.

"There are a lot of Eastern Europeans in Germany."

My experience was that in Western Germany most everyone speaks some amount of English and many speak it quite well.

In the eastern part, Leipzig, the younger people speak English but hardly anyone older than 40 does. They had to take Russian in school and were kept away from English.

Hagar said...

English is much more widely spoken than Latin ever was.

It is a much larger world.

Today, the British Isles alone probably have a larger population than the entire Roman Empire at its height. And far from all of those people had even a nodding acquaintance with latin.

edutcher said...

Hagar said...

English is much more widely spoken than Latin ever was.

It is a much larger world.

Today, the British Isles alone probably have a larger population than the entire Roman Empire at its height. And far from all of those people had even a nodding acquaintance with latin.


In its time, however, Latin was the ligua franca of much of the known world.

That more of the world is explored and the population is larger today isn't the point.

Knowing Latin was as important 2000 years ago as knowing English today.

Big Mike said...

I suspect that they don't want people learning English first, because it's so thoroughly empowering to know English that learning it drastically undercuts the incentive to learn any other language.

English has some advantages next to other languages -- when we associate a gender with a noun, that noun is normally alive and male or female (with a few counterexamples such as boats being "female," presumably because when they come into port they head straight for the bo(u)ys). Against that, English is two languages, one written and a different one spoken. With the two non-English languages I know best -- German and Russian -- if you read a word on the page you can nearly always pronounce it properly. In English one has to memorize whether ough is to be pronounced "oo" or like a hard o, or "uh" or even "uff." So it's not as easy as the Hungarian ministry of education makes it out to be.

On the other hand, every language is easy next to Magyar.

Hagar said...

It is the point. The Romans were not even sure just where China was, even though they got silks, etc. from there.

Today, the world speaks English, even if it is only the American version, Hu dresses in the New York fashion, and Putin tries to imitate Sinatra.

The Roman Empire just encompassed the shores of the Mediterranean and Western Europe west of the Rhine plus most of what is today England.

Carol_Herman said...

When my mom was young, her French teacher from high school traveled to France. And, came back saying "no one in France wanted to understand her French." They all asked her to speak English.

I think, though, there's a difference between British English, and our own. Plus, the speech you get in Texas. And, down South. Doesn't necessarily sound like English to someone raised in Boston.

What's improved English is actually the cell phone. While it's killing spelling. And, it's substitutiong "signs" for actual words.

We should get an interesting dictionary out of this down the road.

edutcher said...

Hagar said...

It is the point. The Romans were not even sure just where China was, even though they got silks, etc. from there.

No.

As far as the Roman world, a probably larger mass than China at the time, was concerned, the language covered a far greater area.

There are a number of versions of Chinese, some almost totally unintelligible, one to the other, so there wasn't even one uniform tongue.

The Vulgate was pretty uniform.

T J Sawyer said...

As pointed out above, learn English and there is not much incentive to learn another language.

But English is easy to learn? I think not. I once stumped a young Egyptian guest by telling him we would be having leftovers for dinner. He knew all the words. But just what were left overs and how were they different from right unders?

And a Russian offered to make us dinner at our house, but he needed to start with the "duff." Took a while to understand that you make it with flour and water (dough!)

Visit any home in Cairo and you will see the TV on and Fox Movie Channel playing with English dialog and Arabic subtitles. That's why a friend asked, "what does sh-- mean?" Later followed by "why do they say it all the time?"

Heart_Collector said...

Who the fuck is Hungary, who cares. I just ate chicken parm.

Mike said...

I believe it's possible to communicate fairly effectively--in American English--with a vocabulary of just 2,000 words--and not much grammar. So in that regard, it's an easy language to learn.

But it's also possible to have an English vocabulary of 100,000 words or so (a feat attributed to Winston Churchill) and to use them all correctly.

In a master's hands, English can be as precise as a surgeon's scalpel. I have no idea what our host's English vocabulary is--certainly more than 20,000 words and less than 50,000 words? (I don't want to get banned for suggesting that her vocabulary is less than she believes it to be.)

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

As one reasonably comfortable in Hungarian -- assorted in-laws there -- I think part of the issue is limited time and funds for teaching foreign languages.

There is a vibrant Hungarian tourist industry whose overwhelming majority of visitors are German-speakers.

There is also the sense that people are going to pick up English in any case on account of its prevalence in the media and elsewhere so educational resources need not be so heavily applied for English to the detriment of German.

Many Europeans do indeed speak English with varying degrees of fluency, but when I encounter such people I'll quite often try a couple of other languages to see if we have a common acquired language we can speak.

That way I don't have the advantage of speaking my native language whilst the other person is speaking English as an acquired language.

Lucius said...

@Kevin: What do you mean by "Russian is a neo-Latin tongue"?

Russian certainly isn't a *Romance* language.

Languages don't have to be descended from Latin just to have conjugations and declensions; Sanskrit has them, and that cradle can better take the credit.

William said...

English is a blue collar language. It was the language of peasants and workmen who didn't have time to exclude useful foreign words or make up complicated grammatical rules. In the era that English was developing, Latin was the language of scholars and clergy, and French was the language of the court and diplomacy. Libertarian rules apply to languages as well. Without regulation and government oversight, a language becomes economical and efficient.....There are twice as many English words as French words. We don't have no stinking Academy telling us we can't use peignoir instead of dressing gown....I learned how to read Spanish, but I was never able to converse in it. I find that most Hispanic people have a pronounced Spanish accent that is very difficult to understand. I can understand norteamericanos when they speak Spanish but not native speakers.

Bill said...

Carol_Herman said...
"As to English. We BORROW words! that's it's magic."

'Borrowing' would imply that we'll give them back....

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." -- James D. Nicoll

"(Like Eskimos having so many words to define "snow.")"

That's more-or-less a misconception. English-speakers who care are equally capable of using their language to make many fine distinctions of types of snow.
E.g. powder, packed powder, granular, corduroy, crust, boilerplate, corn, and slush.

Kirk Parker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirk Parker said...

hagar,

A "very simple grammar"? Not exactly. I think what you mean (perhaps without quite realizing it) is "a very simple grammar at the word level". There's plenty of complexity elsewhere: e.g. just try explaining the nuances of English articles to someone whose native language is Chinese or Japanese!

Clyde said...

It should be noted that there are really two different English languages: The complicated English spoken by native speakers, filled with slang and idiom; and Basic English, with a much smaller and more literal vocabulary, which is used as a lingua franca in much of the world where people who speak different languages want to communicate with each other. Some of the stories related in this comment thread have illustrated the confusion that arises when non-native speakers come in contact with the slang and idiom we use in our day-to-day conversation. You wouldn't want to use Basic English to write literature, but for enabling a native Hindi speaker and a native Mandarin speaker to communicate, it serves the purpose.

warlocketx said...

One of the things that makes learning basic English easy is illustrated by the cited examples of dealing with French: Everybody who speaks English is expected to have an accent; it's part of speaker identity. In many languages, the social attitude is that if you haven't mastered the tongue you don't know it. English speakers with heavy accents may be hard for others to understand, but both parties in such an exchange agree that it's English they're speaking and generally try to adjust, rather than throwing up their hands and abandoning the attempt or shifting to something else.

Hagar said...

Churchill quite likely knew close to a hundred thousand words, but he generally preferred not to use them.
Churchill liked the English language and used it quite nicely indeed.

Basic English is indeed full of nuance, but you just have to know that; there is no way you can teach a person to write good English well by instructing him in grammar.

Peter said...

Everytime I think that local control of education is not such a hot idea I read about some government ministry of education somewhere and reconsider.

BTW, the reason why English is said to be easy for Hungarians to learn is because "we use exclusively English words when talking about computers, international music and molecular biology"

Which also sounds like a good reason for learning it.

Kirk Parker said...

Clyde,

Does Basic English, according to your understanding, include properly inflected tag questions or not?

Because non-inflected tag questions will always be problematic to the naive native speaker, isn't it?

Er, I mean, "won't they"?

Foobarista said...

edutcher, English is the most widely spoken language, period.

At the moment, the world's largest "English-speaking" country - if you consider "second langauges" - is probably India, with China a close second.

Njall said...

@Kevin: What do you mean by "Russian is a neo-Latin tongue"?

Russian certainly isn't a *Romance* language.

Languages don't have to be descended from Latin just to have conjugations and declensions; Sanskrit has them, and that cradle can better take the credit.
----------------
All Indo-European languages had a similar system of conjugations and declensions, originally. Some, like Russian, Lithuanian, and Icelandic, have preserved them to a remarkable degree. Latin is one of the best-known original "com0plicated" languages, but older attested languages from other branches of Indo-European - Old Irish, Gothic, Old Church Slavonic, Sanskrit, Greek, etc. - demonstrate similar systems.

btw - Sanskrit is not the cradle of the I-E languages - that is a 19th c. Romantic idea.

mariner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mariner said...

It's just too easy to learn.

Maybe for Hungarians.

Americans are increasingly finding it too hard.

Craig said...

English is not easy to learn. It is one of the most irregular, polyglot tongues on Earth. To speak it well is to have to know how to say everything at least two or three different ways.

JasonRiggle said...

I want to share how I increase my vocabulary. I use flashcards. A major benefit of the flashcards is that they are extremely portable, comfortably fit into my pocket. If I am standing in the queue at the movie theatre or the mall I pluck them out kill some time by revising them. To make cards I use Accelebrain tool.