Is it really that hard to learn Hungarian? If you search for the most difficult languages to learn, Hungarian comes up in top 10, along with Arabic, Japanese, Navajo and Mandarin. So why did Hungarian get this bad reputation?
The language of Hungary: Magyar
Hungarians call themselves and the language they speak “magyar”. Hungarian/magyar is like an island on the sea of Indo-European languages. It is surrounded by great nations and languages with a lot of speakers like Slavic, German and Latin-based languages. If you think about learning a foreign language, your first choice would obviously be one of these, because they are so evident. Hungarian doesn’t resemble any language you usually come in contact with, it is totally different in terms of grammar or vocabulary.
Take a look at this picture, and you might get the idea:
Is Hungarian the hardest language to learn?
Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language, while English is Indo-European. They are this far apart:
The farther your mother-tongue is from a language you want to learn, the harder it will get, because you will not have any familiar patterns to lean on.
“Magyar” is an agglutinative language just like old Sumerian. As opposed to English, it expresses relations of the words in a sentence by adding suffixes to the end of each word (think of English prefixes like “at”, or “on”, or “in”; suffixes are the same stuff, just they come at the end of words). In English, this relation is expressed by word order. This agglutinative way gives great freedom to Hungarian speakers to emphasize different things in a sentence by changing the word order. This leads to a complex case-system; Hungarian has got 18 cases (according to some linguists it has only got 3).
Beside the cases, there is another thing called wovel harmony in suffixes. This means that you have to add postpostions or suffixes to each Hungarian word according to a set of rules which keep the wovels in that word in harmony with each other. Most Hungarian suffixes have got 2 or 3 forms. They mean the same thing, but you can’t just attach any of these to a word as you please. Take a look at this example:
asztal – table
szék – chair
sütő – oven
Odamegy az asztalhoz. – He goes to the table.
Odamegy a székhez. – He goes to a chair.
Odamegy a sütőhöz. – He goes to the oven.
You can see from the example that the suffix meaning “to” in Hungarian has got 3 forms:
-hoz, -hez, -höz
Hungarian language divides the vowels according to the place where they are formed in the speaker’s mouth. One can differentiate between front and back vowels, and wovels created with rounded lips and unrounded lips.
Hungarian speakers don’t mix vowels in a word, they keep it all front or back ones, so you have to attach the suffix that respects the vowel-harmony in that word. Sometimes you even have to decide whether it is created with rounded lips or not, so that complicates the issue even more.
The good news is that although this rule looks complicated, in fact it is simple. It seems complicated, because there is no such thing in English. If you listen to a lot of Hungarian, you will instinctively feel which suffix goes to a certain word. It comes from the rhythm of the language, and there is logic in it. Wovel-harmony is also used by Korean, Mongolean, Turkish languages.
Why is Hungarian easy?
Now, that I’ve spoken about the hardest parts of Hungarian grammar, let’s see, why it is easy.
- It hasn’t got grammatical gender. There is nothing like “der, die, das” in German or “il, la” in Italian. You don’t have to learn how to say “the” for every word in the language.
- You can forget complex verb tense systems. Hungarian is easy, because each Hungarian verb has only 3 tenses: past, present and future. No present perfect, past perfect or future perfect that European languages usually have. Easy, isn’t it?
- It is a phonetic language, meaning that you pronounce each syllable clearly. You don’t have to worry and guess what syllable is being omitted by a native speaker. If you learn the sounds and letters (you can do that in an afternoon), then you can read any Hungarian word you like, and you can pronounce them properly.
- Accent always falls to the first syllable. No complicated accent and stress patterns, you don’t have to remember where to place the accent for each word.
Despite its reputation of being a difficult language, Hungarian can be easily learned. Let me show you this example of an American young man, who managed to learn Hungarian:
He speaks Hungarian quite well, doesn’t he? It is a language that can be learned, if you want to. Imagine how awesome would it be to say: I speak Hungarian. You can do it, if you want to.
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