The Language Barrier

Language is such an integral part of what binds a community or a culture. Whilst we can muddle through with sign language and mime, ultimately, being able to communicate verbally with others is vital to your integration into a new place.

This is where I went wrong in moving temporarily to Hungary.

I was enthusiastic about learning Hungarian in Australia, terrified I’d get here and no one would speak English. It turned out I had an aptitude for picking it up (after almost failing French in year 8 and not pursuing languages since – who knew I could do this?!) and I was happily practising and perfecting my pronunciation. I learned the sounds of the alphabet (the Hungarian alphabet is very long and complex) and some basic vocabulary. I was able to explain who I was, where I was from and what I did for a living. I could ask for coffee, cake, water, the toilet. I could greet people appropriately, according to my relationship with them, and understood various foods, meals, forms of transport and how to ask ‘how are you?’ and say that I am well, thank you, should someone ask. I knew items of clothing, numbers, the currency, nouns to do with home and the city, the names of main places in Budapest, how to ask for a ticket and how to ask ‘how much?’

I came here armed with my notebooks, phrasebook, dictionary and an eagerness to learn more.

Unfortunately, a few things stood in my way.

When we arrived, I think, looking back, I experienced a bit of culture shock. I couldn’t go into a shop alone, I didn’t like being out by myself, I couldn’t “use my words” as I had been taught to do. For a mostly confident person who is a good communicator, I was tongue-tied and verging on house-bound.

It took such a long time for me to muster the courage to even go downstairs to the convenience store and buy milk or bread alone. Despite knowing how to say, ironically in perfect Hungarian, “I don’t speak Hungarian”, or “I speak a little Hungarian”, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I fumbled through, cheeks burning with embarrassment and my guts churning. I felt like I was being judged. What a failure! How could you move to another country and not speak their language! How dare you! Go back to Australia! 

Every time I went out alone I wanted to run back home to the safety of our apartment.

Having very short conversations with people, using my limited Hungarian, has always given me such joy and I’m sure I bore B when I recount them to him. “And then I said this, and she said this, and I didn’t understand at first but I worked it out!” Surely this is encouragement to keep learning and keep practising? But things got in the way and my enthusiasm dissipated.

Meeting English speaking friends meant I didn’t have to engage with anyone I knew in Hungarian, in Budapest. But spending time with B’s family in Nyíregyháza makes me realise, every time I see them, how important it is for me to really learn, especially if we are coming back here down the track for another stint.

I was keen to enrol in a course here for 4 weeks in April (6 weeks into living here) in the hope of meeting others and having to be independent of B. I was a bit worried that what they’d teach would double up on what I’d learnt in Australia, but I decided it didn’t matter. The course director emailed and said that they didn’t have enough people to run the course in April but they would start another in May.

By this stage, I’d been offered work at a language school teaching English, two days a week for two months. Not much, but enough to give me routine, a bit of extra cash, the chance to work with others and meet new people, and to do something that makes me feel like me again – teaching. Despite teaching much younger kids, and teaching ESL (not my area of expertise), being back in a classroom gave me a renewed sense of purpose. Catching public transport on my own across town and meeting students, parents and teachers got me out of feeling so lost in a new city.

The timing of this was such that it clashed with the language course I had promised to do in May. By the time May came around, I was happily teaching, we were fitting in travel as much as we could and I had met a circle of people that made me felt as though I was worthwhile as a teacher, and almost at home in a new place. I could share my experiences and gain some insight into how others had dealt with it. It’s hard to make a call on whether teaching was of more benefit to me than doing the language course, but I know that after teaching, I felt more at home in Budapest. The friends I made at the language school are the only friends I have here and I’m so grateful that I have that network.

But here I am, almost at the end of my time here, still not progressing much with my Hungarian.

At times, I’ve had stunted conversations in “Hunglish” with my neighbours, which has always been exciting for me to realise that I can understand a bit, and speak a bit. Each time I see B’s family, I understand more and more, but I can’t respond quickly enough or find the vocab. to respond appropriately. I find myself quite nervous about my Hungarian most of the time, and nervousness is the quickest way to ensure verbal fumblings, so it’s a bit of a negative cycle.

There are times when I can completely understand what’s going on, due to context and picking up on some words, that I don’t stand out as a tourist and people then approach me and speak to me in Hungarian. I know they are always confused when I say perfectly that I only speak a little Hungarian, and I didn’t understand what they said. It’s a well-worn phrase for me, and I am embarrassed to have not learnt more.

In shops, when people greet me in Hungarian and I respond likewise, I find myself dumbfounded when they go on to ask me if I need help with anything. (Hungarian customer service is generally quite good in shops – people are attentive.) That moment of shame, when I have to say in English, “sorry, what did you say? I only speak a little Hungarian” is the worst.

The other major thing about living here and not speaking much (or any) Hungarian, is that these days more and more people do speak English. Many people know enough to explain something basic to me in English (“do you want a bag?” “can I help you?”) so I was never really forced into speaking Hungarian or trying really hard to understand. This was unexpected for me, and welcome when you’re feeling really out of your depth, but in retrospect I think that it was detrimental to my learning.

Around June, B bought me a Hungarian language CD and workbook as a gift. I’ve been very slack with that (OK, I opened it and looked at it once), much to his disappointment, and we’ve been coming and going from Budapest a lot over the summer so I didn’t feel I had a long period of time to sit down and get into it. That said, in my down times here, when I’ve been very lazy and quite content on the sofa, I could have fired up the CD and got a pen out, but when you’re down, your motivation is severely lacking, so learning a language isn’t the first thing you’re going to want to do. Watching multiple entire TV series is, however, exactly what you want to do when you’re homesick, 16,000 kilometres from home, struggling with the language and finding the 36 degree heat of the past three weeks pretty much infuriating.

Homesickness and depression overseas… now that’s a whole other blog entry.

So, one of my main goals for when we come back overseas to live is to ensure I learn the language better than this time. If we end up in Germany, I will do a course in German. If we come back to Hungary, I’ll commit myself to learning Hungarian properly. If we go to the UK, then… well… I’ll perfect my cockney accent.


About SKR

30-something Australian who happened to live in Budapest for 8 months in 2012. Returned for a holiday in 2014 & 2015. Became a mum in 2016.
This entry was posted in Budapest, Hungary, language, Travel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Language Barrier

  1. Anna says:

    Steph, one of the things you’re not giving yourself credit for, is that you have respected Hungarians enough to try. Starting from when I went to study in Germany, I’ve always tried to use hello/please/thankyou/excuse me in the local language when I travel. At times I couldn’t even master any more than thankyou, and at other times I’ve been able to build on the little bit of French/Italian/German and feel amazed at how much sticks in your brain. But no matter where I’ve been, people have been pleased and happy that I’ve made the effort to say thankyou, even if I immediately have to switch to English. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed about it – there are far too many Aussies, Canadians, Kiwis, Saffas, Brits and Yanks who expect or even demand that everyone speak English. No need to burn with shame – language acquisition is a difficult and lifelong process, and you’ve done the hardest bit – taken the first step!!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s