Hungarians Reject English, But Why?

by Jennifer Kobrin on August 31, 2011

In a story reported by the Wall Street Journal last week, the Hungarian government plans to discourage teaching English in schools.  Officials believe it is too easy to learn and can lead to frustrations when children eventually start learning additional, harder, languages.

As a former ESOL teacher, I’m curious about how people form values around languages. Learning even a few words in an additional language can resonate emotionally and evoke strong opinions.  It’s natural to tie judgment statements to languages based on our personal experiences or our ideas about their speakers. We might feel that a language is ‘easy’ or ‘frustrating’ depending on our experience learning it, or hate French because we had a boring French teacher.

The Hungarian government’s rationale seems bizarre, and the decision is clearly counterproductive. English is surely not easy to learn—just ask one of the millions of English learners K-12 struggling in U.S. classrooms. And Hungary itself is at the bottom ranks of the EU, with only 6% of its residents 25-64 speaking a language other than Magyar.

The Wall Street Journal quotes Deputy State Secretary Laszlo Dux as saying: “If someone is earlier taught another language, they’ll hardly notice that they can learn English alongside. This is because unfortunately, we use exclusively English words when talking about computers, international music and molecular biology.”

As the quote above may suggest (we’ll never know, the rest of the interview is in Magyar), I wonder if the decision to downplay English in schools relates to larger fears about the extent to which English words have become commonplace in everyday Hungarian life.

Many governments have attempted to stop the influx of English words and slang phrases from infiltrating their native tongue.  France’s Ministry of Culture has outlawed thousands of English words.  Would-be American tourists in Hungary are warned. You may not be able to get directions to the nearest hotel unless you speak Magyar, but you can probably buy an Ipad.

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