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Hungarian vs English

If you are teaching English in Hungary or working with Hungarian native speakers who are learning English, you will find this article comparing Hungarian and English useful.

It looks at various aspects of the Hungarian language and how they relate to English. These differences will help explain why Hungarian mt speakers make certain types of errors when they speak English.

Some Background

Hungarian is the largest of the Uralic languages in terms of number of speakers and the only Uralic language spoken in Central Europe. It is spoken in Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine and the Czech and Slovak Republics as well as some areas of former Yugoslavia. It is also spoken the UK, the USA, Canada and Australia, where many Hungarians have migrated to.

Hungarian is very different from English and from many other languages spoken in Central Europe. This is mainly because it is unrelated to the Germanic, Slavic and Romance languages spoken in most other European countries. It is said to be a a difficult language for English speakers to learn.

Until the 18th century the “official” language of Hungary was Latin. Then, following the Austrian domination German took over as the official language. It was only after the 1848/49, and especially after the formation of Austro-Hungary in 1867 that the Hungarian language started to spread, especially as it was sometimes seen as a nationalistic tool. After World War II Russian became compulsory for students and remained the official foreign language studied at school despite the option students were given after the revolution of 1956 to choose a different foreign language.

More recently Hungarian students and the people in general have had more exposure to English.

Hungarian vs English

Here are a few of the main differences between Hungarian and English. This selection is by no means exhaustive but in teaching Hungarian mt speakers you will often come across these differences.

alphabet & pronunciation

Hungarian is a much more of a phonetic language than English. Words are pronounced as they are spelt.

Compared to English, Hungarian uses a greater range of vowel and consonant sounds with (generally speaking) vowels more open and longer than in English. Although both languages use the standard letters of the Latin alphabet, Hungarian also uses long vowels (á, é, í, ó, ú); four diaereses (ö and ü; ő and ű); a number of  “voiceless” combinations of consonants (diagraphs – two consonants) and trigraphs (three consonants).

As a consequence of phonetic differences, reading and writing in English is quite challenging for Hungarians. In your TEFL class you may well come across problem words like success which contains the cc combination which doesn’t exist in Hungarian and can cause problems with learners. Simply put you need to keep an eye out for these types of issues and we’d recommend you begin to introduce and use the IPA to help here.

In addition, you should also pay attention to the letters q, w, x and y which do not exist in Hungarian but entered its alphabet through foreign words borrowed from English. Since these letters do not exist in their alphabet Hungarian speakers learning English find it difficult to pronounce the bilabial consonant w and end up making it sound like the dentilabial v.

grammar

Unlike English, Hungarian is an agglutinative language as oppose to English, which is an inflected language.

So for example Hungarian does not have preposition but postposition. This makes it difficult for Hungarians learners of English to understand and use prepositions correctly.

Nouns consist of a root to which several suffixes are added to show whether the word is singular or plural (number suffix), whether there is an owner or not (possessor suffix) and to show location (case suffix).

Cases also play a big role – there are 17 of them. They are determined by such factors as exterior/interior, moving/stationary, away from/towards, etc. They can be viewed as the equivalent of prepositions in English.

There are three tenses in Hungarian – present; past and future. Aside from the indicative and the conditional mood, Hungarian tenses are also conjugated in the subjunctive, which in English is almost extinct.

Suffixes are added to the root of the verb to show the tense, the mood and the subject – three in the singular and three in the plural.

The normal word order in Hungarian is Subject-Verb-Object much like in English. But the Hungarian word order is also determined by what is called the topic and the comment. Topic is the part of the sentence that is known, while comment is the new information that is being added about the topic. In Hungarian sentences, topic comes first.

You will need to keep things simple, certainly with lower level classes. Diagram your sentences carefully and make sure your students understand how basic sentences are constructed in English and how we add or change different words to show tense, position, description and so on.

vocabulary

The core of the Hungarian vocabulary is made of words of Uralic origin. And perhaps this is the part that is most daunting to speakers of Indo-European languages since the vast majority of Hungarian words do not sound or look like anything spoken in the neighbouring countries.

But Hungarian has also borrowed a large number of words from Iranian and Turkic during the first Hungarian migrations and later on from German, Italian, French, English as well as the Slavic languages.

Useful Links

Teaching English in Hungary‏‎ – about teaching in Hungary

ICAL TEFL Course 120hr – a course to learn how to teach English effectively

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