The Heart of Language / Phoebe Suy

Whether it’s a Romance language like French or Spanish, or the Germanic Dutch or German tongues, most Europeans typically speak several languages. Given their proximity to a variety of cultures and peoples, it is not difficult to understand why Europeans’ linguistic skills far surpass those of Americans. In the United States, it is a novelty for most people to speak another language in addition to English.

People say we’re lucky. You can travel anywhere and anyone will understand you, locals tell me. Are we really the lucky ones? I’m not so sure.

I began my adventure with the Hungarian language a week before leaving for Budapest. I read through the alphabet and basic phrases and immediately gave up. It was too hard, too confusing. The “s” in Hungarian makes a “sh” sound and “dzs” makes a “j” sound and what in the world is with these back and front vowels?

After my first week in the country, I began taking lessons with Zsófia Matisz, a sweet woman from the CIEE office who volunteered her time to help me learn. I left my first lesson feeling incredibly overwhelmed. I forgot how humbling it was to learn another language.

You have to admit you know nothing. Zero. Zilch. I thought two years of Arabic study would give me some sort of linguistic insight. Nem.

You have to be willing to feel and sound silly. Speaking Hungarian well means moving your mouth and lips in ways you don’t have to in English.

You have to be patient with yourself. I walked into the first lesson thinking I would learn how to hold a basic conversation and maybe begin conjugating verbs. I barely left with the former.

I began to question why I had expressed interest in learning the language. I was only going to be in Hungary for six weeks, I told myself, most people speak English anyway. Why does it matter?

It matters because people matter.

Expecting everyone in the world, or at least everyone in Budapest, to cater to my lack of linguistic abilities is self-seeking. Don’t misunderstand me, I am grateful English is widely spoken so my broken and botched Hungarian doesn’t have to be. I also understand that expecting to speak Hungarian fluently after only six short weeks is a tall order. Despite my extreme lack of proficiency, the greatest lesson I have learned from attempting to learn Hungarian hasn’t been about sounding like a local at the market or the proper word order in a sentence. Learning a new language is so much more than syntax and grammar–language is a window into the culture of any given place.


Lesson No. 1: Learn the alphabet.

Unlike English or French, two languages fraught with silent letters, Hungarian is a phonetic language. It’s straightforward–spelling and pronunciation are one in the same. Words are pronounced exactly as they are written. If you know the alphabet and all its nuances, you should be able to read anything.

I can’t help but associate this linguistic truth with what Americans perceive to be a sense of negativity among Hungarians. People in Budapest typically don’t smile at passersby on the street or strike up a conversation on the metro, it just doesn’t happen. In contrast, it’s almost considered rude in my hometown in Texas to not acknowledge someone’s presence with at least a nod or a smile.

This small cultural difference even manifests itself in basic conversation. Americans are programmed to answer the question “How are you?” with a “good” or even “great,” even if it’s far from the truth. Hungarians, on the other hand, say “jó,” which translates as a plain old “fine.” While a relatively vague response, it is a shift away from the false positivity many Americans portray. The Hungarian approach to life is much more matter of fact, just like their language. 

Lesson No. 2: Learn to tell time.

Hungarians tell time looking forward. Instead of saying 8:45 in the morning, Hungarians would say the equivalent of “It is 15 minutes until 9.” Given Hungary’s recent communist past, I find this element of the Hungarian language especially interesting. Hungarians have been telling time for, well, probably as long as time itself, but how powerful it is to think there were glimpses of hope during the darkest of times simply through the way the clock was read.

Lesson No. 3: Learn the vocabulary. 

Hungarian is built upon a system of roots. As you continue studying the language and amassing a larger vocabulary, you will begin to see that words build upon one another. For example, könyv means book and könyvtár means library. One of my favorites is szívesen, which translates to English as “you’re welcome.” However, if you know the language is constituted of roots, you’ll discover that words like szívesen are much deeper than a simple pleasantry.

Szív is the word for heart, meaning that when you say “szívesen,” you aren’t just being polite. In Hungarian, the word actually means “with my heart.”

Last week, my study abroad group and I volunteered at the Knights of Malta homeless shelter in Óbuda. We made sandwiches and served drinks to a group of around 15 to 25 men and women. They smiled and thanked us and spoke little English, if any at all. All I understand was köszönöm (thank you) and all I could say was szívesen, but for the first time, I really meant it.


I desperately wished I had the proper vocabulary or knowledge to have a conversation with one of the men or women. I wanted to know their stories, to listen intently and knowledgeably, not just the vague smile and nod. Sadly, I couldn’t. I was stuck behind a barrier built of the English language and miles of cultural difference.

Given the distance, that one word, szívesen, meant so much to me. I was humbly reminded that sharing a meal was a way of sharing our hearts. Each time a grateful “köszönöm” was spoken, I replied szívesen with all the sincerity and love I could muster. “With my heart,” I said, “Szívesen.” With all my heart.

This is the beauty of language. We may not know the ins and outs of conjugating verbs or perfect sentence structure, but simple insights can turn frustrating moments into beautiful ones to be treasured. The effort to learn a new language is worth it. It doesn’t matter how far you go (or for me, how far you don’t go), what matters is the effort– people are worth your effort and your heart.


Basic Hungarian Phrases to Know:

No. – Nem. (nehm)

Yes. ­– Igen. (EE-gen)

Thank you. – Köszönöm. (KUH-suh-nuhm)

You’re welcome. – Szívesen. (SEE-ve-shen).

Hello/Goodbye/Aloha. – Szia. (SEE-yah)

Good-bye. – Viszlát. (VEES-lat)

Good morning. – Jó reggelt. (yo reg-gehlt)

Good afternoon. – Jó napot. (yo nah-poht)

Good evening. – Jó estét. (yo esh-teyt)

Good night. – Jó éjszakát. (yo ey-sah-kayt)

How are you? – Hogy vagy? (hodge vodge)

I’m fine. – Jól vagyok (yoal vadjok)

I’m sorry. – Bocsánat. (BO-cha-naht)

Excuse me. – Elnézést. (el-nay-zaysht)

My name is ­­­­_______. – ______ vagyok. ( _____ VAH-djok.)

I understand. – Értem. (EYR-tem)

I don’t understand. – Nem értem. (nem EYR-tem).

I don’t speak Hungarian. – Nem beszélek magyarul. (nem beh-SEY-lehk mah-dja-ruhl)

Do you speak English? – Beszélsz angolul? (BEH-sails AN-go-lul?)

Where is the restroom? – Hol van a mosdó? (Hole vahn ah moshdough)

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