Listing “Hungarian” as a language that I speak might not help me much on future job applications, but studying it is like solving a puzzle. Being kind of nerdy, I love the mental challenge.
When I learn how to conjugate a new verb, chances are I can apply my knowledge at the train station or at the grocery store. Or, more often, I pick up new words at the grocery store, from colleagues, or from my students, and then I remember them because I learned them in a meaningful context.
Hungarian is spoken by around 14 million people, and it is useful on a day to day basis while I’m in the country, but in the long run it seems like an exercise in futility: Ranked by the number of native speakers, Hungarian is #66 among world languages, sandwiched in between Assamese and Chittagonian, according to one list. The first four languages are: Mandarin, Spanish, English and Bengali (Wikipedia says that #4 is Hindi/Urdu, another list says it is Arabic, but it is decidedly not Hungarian).
Hungarians are either proud or amused that it is a difficult language to pick up, but it’s not impossible. Fekete Pákó, a rapper from Nigeria, seems to have learned it and considers himself Hungarian (I was compelled to Google him after my students mentioned him in class).
I feel like my progress is very slow. I have to remind myself that when I listened to my first Hungarian language CD while in Michigan back in February or March, the sounds were so foreign that it might as well have been an alien language. I despaired that I would ever be able to say a sentence.
Nine months later, Hungarian is familiar to my ears. The cadence of conversations, the interjections (Ez az! Hópa!), the intonation of questions, all seem normal.
The phrases I use every day roll off my tongue without hesitation: Debrecenre kérek, Jó napot kívánok, köszönöm, viszlát, szia.
Best (or perhaps worst) of all, I have found myself saying “Helló!” for “Good bye!” When we first arrived, this both confused me and felt like hearing nails on a chalkboard.
How did this happen? It’s as if I literally just absorb the sounds around me.
I still cannot hold a conversation, but I can comprehend more and more. Every word I recognize helps me make a bit more sense of the world around me.
And that’s why I’m here in Hungary. I’m just a Midwestern girl trying to figure out herself and where she fits in the world. It’s an every changing puzzle, but I still keep trying to fit the pieces together.