Expositus

Author: Mark Fischer, Jr.
Posted: May 28, 2021
Tags: magyar

Two weeks of Hungarian

It has now been 2 weeks since I started learning Hungarian. In the past week I’ve used DuoLingo daily, attended a group Zoom lesson, and I attended a private Hungarian lesson last night. I’ve also done independent research into different aspects of the language that interest me, as they come up in my more structured learning. Some of the initial learning fever has worn off and I can feel myself starting to fall into a sustainable pace. I’m familiar with this feeling since it used to happen back when learning programming languages was new for me: I’d start off knowing nothing and feeling simultaneously overwhelmed and awestruck by the breadth and depth of information I was consuming. This caused (and still causes) my initial learning period to be very intense while I try to establish basic level understanding in a programming language’s syntax or a spoken language’s basic grammar and vocabulary.

Hungarian flag waving in the wind
Image Credit

My learning experience so far

For me, learning something brand new feels metaphorically like being hit by a giant wave of information and having no way to consume it. I then start to understand bits and pieces of it and eventually get to a point where I start to feel comfortable with some very small part of the language. For programming languages this was being able to write and understand my first chunk of meaningful code, usually a small program that responded to user input and maybe had a couple if statements for different control flow. For Hungarian that point was when I could start saying basic present tense sentences with a subject, verb, and object like János egy almát lát (János sees an apple). I see this small nucleus of understanding like a beachhead: it’s a starting point that I can use to explore in many different directions.

A red car in Hungary
Egy piros autó (a red car)
Image Credit

For instance, I can start exploring grammatical number using this basic framework. I know how to say “János sees an apple”, now I can also say János almákat lát (János sees apples). I can also try some different adjectives to describe the apple that János sees, for instance János egy nagy almát lát (János sees a large apple). I can play around with word order, saying János lát egy almát instead of János egy almát lát.

Let’s try out some new verbs in our kicsi (little) sentence. János egy almát vár (János waits for an apple). Kind of a nonsensical sentence, but it’s grammatically correct. We can also say János talál egy almát (János finds an apple).

These little forays into different aspects of the language while building on things I already know help me to steadily progress without getting overwhelmed. They also give me tangible goals that keep me from being discouraged by how much there is to learn and wanting to know all of it right now. If I focus on the vague concept of wanting to learn Hungarian, it immediately becomes overwhelming because mastering a language takes years. Instead I focus on figuring out how to say “János found an apple” or “János will find an apple”, and so on. These small goals make progression in the language seem relatively easy and rewarding.

A brief ramble about the difficulty of the Hungarian language

I’m writing this blog post as an exercise for myself, since teaching something is one of the best ways to learn, but also as a way to document my process of learning Hungarian in the hopes that it can help or encourage someone else. The Hungarian language specifically can be discouraging to start learning since Hungarian has a reputation for being impossible for English speakers to learn, or at least extremely difficult. And maybe it is difficult. Aside from taking a year of Latin in high school I have nothing to compare it to. Perhaps if I had learned an easier language first, Hungarian would seem more overwhelming, who knows. But what I do know is that this language is not impossible.

A view of Lake Balaton
A view of Lake Balaton from Hegymagas, Hungary.
Image Credit

Something I find interesting is that language learning difficulty goes both ways. If Hungarian is difficult for English speakers, then English is also difficult for Hungarian speakers. My grandmother learned English in her teens, and spoke perfect English for the rest of her life with only the faintest of an accent. At this very moment there are thousands, maybe millions of Chinese speakers who are learning English and will succeed.

Why do English speakers get so overwhelmed by the difficulty of a language? Maybe it’s because we don’t have to learn another language. Maybe it has to do with the American notion of forcing our culture on others instead of learning and assimilating other cultures. I don’t really know. I do know I’m waxing political though, so I’ll end this ramble here.

Plans for my next week of learning

In the next week, I am hoping to be able to attend another group lesson, and of course will be continuing to use DuoLingo. My goal for the next week is to expand my Hungarian vocabulary and learn definite conjugations for verbs.

What is a definite conjugation? In Hungarian, different endings are used for verbs depending on whether the sentence is talking about something specific or something indefinite. So in the sentence a nő egy almát lát (the woman sees an apple), the object (egy almát or an apple) is indefinite. We aren’t talking about a specific apple, but an indefinite one.

On the other hand, the sentence a nő az almát látja (the woman sees the apple) has a definite object. We are talking about a specific apple this time. Because of this, the verb lát gets the ending -ja. You may say, “well Mark, it seems like you understand indefinite and definite verbs already”, and you’d be wrong, because it just so happens that I only understand the concept and I don’t know the endings for the different conjugations of verbs. I know the definite conjugation for “he/she/it sees” is látja, but I don’t know what the definite conjugation for “I see”, “we see”, etc is. And that will be one of my focuses for the coming week.

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