Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Fear of flying, Hungarian style

Language is a problem when living in Hungary.

During the years of Russian domination only Hungarian and Russian were taught in schools and so now there is an acute shortage of teacher-aged people who can effectively teach English. So while young people are more likely to speak some English, the general ability level is low and is concentrated in the more tourist-oriented sectors of the economy.

Official EU statistics report that Hungary has one of the lowest levels of second language functionality in the whole of the Union. No prizes for guessing which other country lurks at the bottom. Joke: What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? English.

Hungarian is also completely unlike any other language in the world. Some linguists claim it is related to Finnish, but even Finns fail to see much similarity. So you can’t get any vague sense of what something means by relating it to a similar looking Romance or Anglo-Saxon word. It works by adding small words expressing simple ideas together to create more complex ideas, and to this word you then add endings that show such things as plurality, possession and any prepositional relationship. This means that Hungarian sentences consist of a small number of extremely long words. You therefore have to constantly think backwards when putting things into Hungarian, which is not easy when you’ve lost the number of brain cells that I have.

All this means that everyday transactions in shops, banks, post offices and official offices can be frustrating. Technological solutions exist: iPhone users can use an app that translates a typed English phrase into Hungarian, and one shopkeeper used Google Translate on his computer to translate his Hungarian into English for me. But such solutions often give ridiculous results due to the complexity of Hungarian grammar and word order, so they are not altogether satisfactory, and fail to help develop much empathy in such interactions.

Sometimes you think things are better than they are. When you call T-Mobile for help, for example, the instructions say “Press 2 for the English language service”. You then press buttons to work your way through the usual hierarchy of options until finally you get a ringing tone and a human being answers. “Beszélsz angolul?” (“Do you speak English?”) you ask. “Nem”, no, they reply.

So Helen and I are trying to learn the language. We’ve made small but significant progress and can now enter entrances and exit exits. We usually know how to avoid unusual parts of pigs on restaurant menus.

And Hungarians appreciate you making the effort. For that reason I decided the other evening when waiting at Budapest Airport with some Hungarian colleagues to impress them with a little local language. The information screen just flashed up that our flight was boarding so I walked back to them and announced enthusiastically, “Beszállás!”, boarding. They both looked at me astonished for a second then burst out laughing. “Do you know what we thought you just said? You told us that you had shit yourself!”

The two words for boarding and pooing one’s pants are beszállás and beszarás, but an untrained English tongue moves around the mouth in a way that makes ‘l’ and the Hungarian ‘r’ similar and loses the distinction between short and long a’s. The joys of language learning.

I shall take more care in future when describing my movements at Hungarian airports, but it won’t deter me from trying to get to grips with this unique but impenetrable language.

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