When I arrived in Hungary seven months ago, I knew that I wanted to learn the language. After studying communications in college, it became apparent to me that language is a key, not only for practically understanding those who speak it, but to understand culture and the way people think as well.
I have heard many, many times that Hungarian is incredibly difficult for English speakers to learn. Starting out, this can be discouraging. I even saw an image on the internet that depicted a language family tree, putting Hungarian in a completely separate tree than almost every other language. There are only a few languages in that separate tree. Hungarian is at the top of a branch that only includes two languages of indigenous people groups in Russia.
Before I came to Hungary the first time, my friend gave me a Hungarian phrase book and dictionary. I remember sitting in a coffee shop with her, looking at that book and attempting to translate the phrases she threw at me. I was not successful.
Hungarian is a language of prefixes (or coverbs) and suffixes that change the meaning of the words they are attached to. Possessives are suffixes. “In,” “on,” and “at” are suffixes. “With” is also a suffix. Sometimes, one single word will need several suffixes. The word in the header above is an extreme example of this. For a simpler example, if I want to say “with my cat,” I start with macska, the word for cat (pronounced machka, with long A’s), add the possessive for “my,” macskám, and then add the suffix for “with,” macskámmal.
That is the very basic explanation of that expression. I left out several of the rules needed to add those suffixes. I didn’t tell you about vowel harmony or how suffixes change depending on word endings. To make it worse, the prefix or suffix you need is not always intuitive and sometimes requires quite a bit of memorization. It can be rather complicated.
Starting from this expectation of difficulty, I have been surprised by how natural some of this language comes to me now. Though I am far from perfect, pronunciation is no longer foreign to me. Suffixes, to some extent, come natural. Each week, I can understand more of the conversations happening around me.
Sometimes, I realize I know more than I thought I did when someone speaks to me in Hungarian and I am able to understand and answer. Other times, I am reminded of my complete lack of ability and just stare dumbly at someone saying words I can’t comprehend.
As I learn more and more Hungarian, I begin to learn the rules of what is polite and impolite in this culture. I see the way that age determines communication. I begin to understand why engineering is such a popular discipline of study here, since Hungarians are used to complex thought from a young age (refer to the header image). At this point, though I only have a glimpse with my level of learning, I can see how this language is an important key to Hungarian culture and people.