As a preface, I am not fluent in German nor Hungarian, although I am a stickler for grammar in both languages.

On beginning with German

German was always difficult to grasp at the beginning for me, an English speaker. This was largely in part due to its extensive case system, and gendered nouns.

English is a Germanic language, so learning German as a LOTE should be a piece of cake.

Me, circa 2015, thinking so smart.

It took me months to grasp the basic concepts such as accusative, dative, genetive. The flexible sentence structure with that combined? Get out, please.

I distinctively remember this one sentence they used in a textbook (Deutsch: Na klar!), about a postman and a dog.

In English:

The dog bites the postman.

Following in German

Den Postmann beißt der Hund.

Clearly the translations must be identical.. no wait.. The postman bites the dog? What in the world?

Der Hund beißt den Postmann.

Now this sentence I can get around…it has the English word order and uses the different case articles that we’ve been studying about.

I failed to see how the accusative represents the result of an action! This basic concept.. I just could not for the life of me grasp it. I remember distinctively reading over the sentence about 10-1000 times. It clicked eventually, about 3 weeks later.

Suddenly, the difficulties with the case system seemed entirely gone. What mattered now was positioning and further syntax rules to make sentences intelligible.

The key I learnt here, was to completely forget all notions of English word-order. Anecdotally I’ve often found that when people see a foreign language, their interpretation is that learning it would simply mean memorising the direct translation of a word, word-for-word. This would definitely help, but you fail to forget about things such as plural forms, declinations and verb conjugations.

I had this same feeling. I thought it would be akin to looking up a dictionary, finding the german for some words: enjoyed, it, and I, then being able to say “I enjoyed it!” just like a native. Couldn’t be mooooore wrong. Could not be more wronger.

Rote learning vocabulary is inefficient..

If you want to simply just pass the exam, then by all means, study and memorise the word list you get given. You’ll forget it in a day, or 4 or so hours after your test.

This is especially for true for languages with completely different vocabularies. Obviously the vocabularies are going to be different. To expand, it is easier to retain German words, than it is Hungarian. Simply due to the sheer number of similarities you can find in German compared to Hungarian.

If you are going to write down a list of words and expect yourself to remember them, then you need a lot of discipline. It is difficult to memorise a list of say 30 words, and expect yourself to remember them all by next day. What you are missing is conversational context, or your own experiences with the word(s) you are trying to remember.

When you discover a new word, I find one of two things happen.

  1. You notice the word appears again and again, eventually forcing itself into your memory.
  2. You think about it, go “huh..” and then forget about it.

My German studies course required us to do tests fortnightly. Every two weeks we received a list of words, roughly 20-30, that we were expected to know.

I studied the night before the test using Anki, would ace the vocabulary section (almost 100% across the year on it), and subsequently forget it.

Anki is a spaced repetition learning software. It lets you to take breaks between words in a deck, which it then presents to you after certain intervals of time. You need to tell it how well you remember the word, so you can best learn for yourself. Don’t lie to it, it doesn’t do you any good.

Dictionaries are not always enough

When you come across a new word, you might instinctively go to your dictionary, online or made from a tree, and search up the word and write its direct translation down.

First of all, this is a good method. You are putting in some effort to learn the meaning of a word. I found using a paper dictionary is better in some circumstances, especially for common words you may not know.

What you need to be careful of is the meaning of the new word in context. This is where I found dictionaries fall short. Whilst you may have a direct translation from English to your target language, you should look for further usage of the word. This is where I found an online resource to be much better.

Breaking beginner to intermediate

The struggle here arises from your time and effort. Obviously for English speakers certain foreign languages are much easier to acquire a grasp of, due to similarities in syntax and vocabulary. The abundance of materials for learning is also important, for a lack thereof does make it quite difficult to know what is an effective resource, or find a learning style that suits you.

German came more naturally to me than Hungarian. Rightfully so. I believe solely due to the sheer amount of resources that were available to learn from, as well as the amount of vocabulary sharing.

There is still the area of transition from beginner to intermediate. When does one even call themselves intermediate anymore? It’s not a blanket statement, for you can be a beginner when talking about a certain topic, but advanced when it comes to all the different kinds of weather to be had!

There eventually becomes a lightbulb moment, when you no longer feel that the grammar or excessive word-order rules tie you down, rather a lack of vocabulary. By persisting, you will eventually find that you can piece conversations easier and easier, guessing the meaning of words you do not understand, but you can understand completely why the verb is now at the end of the sentence, or that the verb has been split up.

With Hungarian, I felt it took me a good 6-9 months before I felt at an intermediate level. This was with no formal education in the language, rather at home study and a some Skype teacher sessions. What made it abundantly easier was a prior schooling in German at university.

Motivation to continue

You might ask yourself, what is the point of this language? It might be a hot trend, like Bitcoin, and you simply want to jump on the bandwagon. There are plenty of positives to learning a foreign language—the list is generally exhaustive.

One thing I’ve noticed is people wanting to learn a language, but unsure on what to choose. They then measure the value of the language (and for some people it is a very valid reason of grading), for example, one might learn Spanish over Italian, because there are more Spanish speakers in the world. What can happen is a form of language hopping, when feeling like one language has more effectiveness over the other, and as a result make 12 accounts on Duolingo, 6 on Memrise and buy every Pimsleur course available.

You need a personal motivation to succeed. Do you have any friends that speak the language? Do you want to work for a company that is headquartered in the country your language is from? Do you want to read the original text of Don Quixote? Languages are a community and encompass a lot of areas, but don’t be dissuaded by some metric such as the amount of L1 speakers.

Why did I choose German? I could have chosen French (I did do it for one semester, actually), Italian, Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, Indonesian… I simply chose German because I had to choose one! It wasn’t until later I developed further motivations to continue.

And what about Hungarian? My grandparents are Hungarian. They never spoke a word of it to me. No one in my family (except my grandmother) can speak it.

I developed a passion from learning a foreign language. It completely changed my perspective. It allowed me to think differently and understand history, culture and the world better. I became more sociable, met new people, had more fun! I had only ever thought of STEM field subjects and that type of schooling, never endeavoured into humanities, and had terrible English grades throughout highschool.

With this passion I decided I wanted to learn Hungarian. I want to know more about the land my father’s family comes from. What is the language, how does it work, how can it be so different to English or German..

I also fell in love. I met a girl wanting to practice her already great English, and I wanted to practice my Hungarian. We spoke and spoke and spoke. Daily! I then went and lived in Budapest for 4 months, studied Hungarian there more and wanted to go further and further with the language.

In 2018 I applied for Hungarian citizenship, and in 2019 I went over to Melbourne, and took the oath. The whole process was done in Hungarian.

Summarising

I felt like ranting and throwing a few thoughts out, but I hope some of the subject matter is a little helpful in your own struggles with learning a language. Like anything worth while in this world, it takes effort to get involved with it.

Last bit of advice: just do one minute a day if you can. It’s like flossing. You’ll notice the difference in a year and you’ll be amazed.


Written by Caleb Fetzer. A web developer living in Perth, Western Australia