Talking the Magyar Talk

In the battle of Me vs. Magyarul, it seems magyarul (Hungarian language) is once again winning. As much as I loved meeting a bunch of American Fulbrighters to Italy at the Berlin Conference, the fact that I spent a few nights showing off my (still bad, but far superior to Hungarian) Italian has only increased my Itali-garian problem, where I try to start a sentence in Hungarian and it comes out partially in Italian. This is only compounded by all the words that sound the same in the two languages but mean completely different things — like io (Italian for “I”) and (Hungarian for “good”), both of which sound like the English “yo!”.

Over the past two weeks of Hungarian class, I have continued my role as comic relief by doing the following:

– I attempted to be amusing during a skit and have a line where I asked for a “handsome Hungarian man’s telephone number. Instead, I asked for his telephone bill.

– While describing my trip to Berlin, I said I saw the city’s cathedral. Instead of calling it “very big,” I somehow said it was “very church-y”. When Gabi, the teacher, tried to correct my, I, frustrated, insisted that it was actually quite church-y, saying There was a whole lot of Jesus! Many Jesuses everywhere! until poor Gabi was laughing so hard she relented and agreed that a church could be church-y.

and, my personal favorite…

– we learned the word emlék which means “remembrance”. I was very excited because the word sounded familiar, so I said, in my bad broken Hungarian that I say many signs that had a similar word on historic buildings. When I tried to pronounce the word, I said something like “moo-mel-ake”. Which made Gabi start laughing like crazy. I got flustered and insisted, “No, no — they’re all over Castle Hill! Yes there are lots of them by the castle!”

Apparently, I was trying to say műemlék, which does indeed indicate that a building is of historic importance. But instead I said, műmellek.

Which means “fake breasts.”


Further proof that I am one walking, talking definition for middle-child syndrome (a.k.a. the type of person who thrives a wee bit too much on the compliments of others … this is always dangerous when Significant Others … or Insignificant Others, as the case often is for me… or students find this out, as it makes it way too easy to get out of trouble with me):

I am totally happy right now because a random Hungarian complimented my accent. Usually, such a small accomplishment in the day would go unnoticed, but I have been feeling like my language skills are actually getting worse, despite my efforts. And I know this is mostly my fault, because I don’t practice enough — I don’t need much Hungarian to get through my daily tasks and my Hungarian friends are mostly English professors, who can converse in my native tongue as well (if not better) than me. Still, after struggling through a class on the difference between the direct and indirect form of “I like” in Hungarian that left poor Gabi perplexed at how to better explain it, I was feeling a bit frustrated. That, plus the fact that, inexplicably, my old Italian skills have started to rear up when speaking Hungarian, so I come up with nicely hybridized phrases like jó napot kívánok, mi chiamo Robyn és tanítok amerikai litteratura. Mi piace molto means I’ve been feeling a bit down about my ability to make any real headway into the culture. (and no, that sentence does not make any sense. In any language).

But this afternoon, I was helping a visitor to the Fulbright Center after the TOEFL workshop by giving him feedback on his speaking section of the practice test. Not to overgeneralize a population, but he was using what might be called the “typical” Hungarian negativity: Oh, I speak English so poorly. I did awfully on this part. I will likely fail… (and yes, I note my own cultural bias here. I call “negative” what another culture might call “humble” or “cautious” because my brash American self is used to the land of the bragging. What we call “optimism” or “confidence” could indeed really be more like “big-headedness.” I get this. However, I do occasionally want to pump Prozac into the water supply. You know, just a little…)

I, of course, spring into the one part of teaching I think I have perfected: cheerleader-ing. Oh no, you spoke very well! Look, I understood eveything perfectly! You used great transitions! Here, how wonderful — you proved how well you understood the passage! And so on.  I also pointed out how great it is that Hungarian students can converse so freely in any foreign language, pointing out Americans sad, sad lack in this area. To prove my point, I jumped into my own broken Hungarian, telling him that  “Tanulok magyarul, de egy kiscit beszélek magyarul. Magyarul nagyon nehéz.” (Which, I believe, is some poor, childlike version of “I am studying Hungarian, but I only speak a little bit of Hungarian. Hungarian is very difficult.” Yup. The Colin-Firth-Speaking-Portuguese style again)

The kind student laughed, but then he told me that, even if I didn’t know all the words, I had a perfect accent, so people would still be pleased when I tried.

Sure, he was probably trying to be nice. But, you know, I like nice.

And I also like learning new things. Even when I am bad at them (just check the college transcripts, and you’ll note that that beloved Italian language got me the worst grades of my Georgetown career. But I couldn’t give it up!)

So, with a big köszönöm to my new Hungarian buddy (and hopes that he does well on his TOEFL tomorrow!), I’m going to finish my syllabi while listening to some Hungarian radio.

Despite the patient attention of my kisci tanár, Petra, yesterday, my Hungarian skills still most closely mirror that scene in Love Actually where Colin Firth tries to speak Portuguese to win his lady love.  After Petra’s careful attentions in the morning, I headed to my usual classes at C.E.U., where Gabi, my teacher, wanted us to explain our day. This meant not only using verbs, but using the past tense, so I think what I said most closely translated to something like: Yes, the day is full. I working at Fulbright Center 7 hours. I helping student write things. Essays. I helping students study exams. It was being interesting, and all students being nice.”

While Gabi tried to help me untangle this mess of Magyar, she also taught the whole class a new vocabulary word: hallgató, which is a word for student, but it is only used for university students. (By contrast, the word I had used, diák, is a more general form for student at any level).

Trying, as she always does, to get us to make sense of Hungarian structure (ha!), Gabi asked us what new word reminded us of. It’s a verb, she hinted. You remember this from last term.  Finally, one of my classmates hit on the phrase zenét hallgatok, or “I listen to music.” Igen, said Gabi, pointing to the similarity between the verb hallgat and the noun hallgató. 

So, I countered, this word for student literally means “listener?” That explains a lot!! One of my biggest challenges, of course, has been getting my students to talk to me, to engage in discussion. The fact that the very name for their position implies passivity in learning certainly helps me understand the clash between my comfort with interactive pedagogy and my students’ seeming desire that I just lecture.

But that doesn’t mean I’m letting them off the hook.  On the contrary, I’ll just be enacting an even firmer nem hallgató approach this spring.

I’ve been working at the Fulbright Advising Center all day — but I’m getting as much of an education as I am giving. Annamaria, the wonderful program coordinator for us American Fulbrighters in Hungary, brought her 6-year-old daughter Petra to work today.

Petra, noticing my lack of Hungarian skills, has taken it upon herself to help me improve.  My kisci magyar tanár is quite excited, and does not seem to be concerned that I only vaguely understand her. First, she patiently explained, in slow Hungarian, that since I am an American, I speak English, but since she is a Hungarian, she can teach me Hungarian.

Nagyon jó! I said, “very good.”  And this was all the encouragement she needed. She drew me a few pictures, and reviewed the colors with me (and seemed disappointed — but willing to help — when I knew the word for “red” but not “purple”.)

Petra is also beginning her own multi-lingual adventures: she can count to ten in English. This discovery has led us to a fun new game, which I call “Robyn and Petra Count.” Petra counts to ten in English, then I follow with my egy, kettő, három …

Once Petra approved of my basic numbers, however, she began a bit more demanding, and insisted I count by tens, which involved several attempts until she was pleased with me pronouncing the word negyven or 40.  Next, she made me a paper fan, which involved many tries before I could say this word to her liking (…and, don’t tell the teacher, but I have already forgotten this one!)

I must run now. My tanár just made me a paper butterfly and she is very unimpressed with my pronunciation of its Hungarian name — pillangó —  so we need to go practice some more.

After three months of studying Hungarian language at Central European University, for three hours each week, I have graduated … to the elementary level.

Yes. That is correct. I had to move up to elementary.

But don’t get me wrong — elementary is hard enough for this English-speaker with a bit of Romance language experience. I am sitting here, staring at my little sheet of Hungarian homework, which I intended to do before I leave super-early tomorrow morning for a conference in Pécs with my colleagues. I remember thinking how my friend Carolyn faced a much more difficult task as a Fulbrighter to Bulgaria, because she had to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. But frankly, these few sentences might as well as be written in Cyrillic for as much sense as they make to me. Siiiiiiiiigh. I am fondly remembering being able to discuss politics in Italian; here, I would settle for knowing what to say to the little old Magyar ladies who populate my building after I pass the standard “good morning” or “hello.”



Although, I was chatting online last night with Jeannette, who held the ETA Fulbright position in Hungary last year, and told her that my newest accomplishment is that the bartenders at one of my favorite hangouts, Szimpla, have finally begun to humor my poor Hungarian enough to tell me the price of my Dreher or forralt bor in Hungarian instead of English. She assures me this is rather impressive indeed, and that it must be a good sign for my language studies.

Still, back to the books for now.

My latest Hungarian language class revealed something very interesting about the language … and made me happier that we’ve now moved on to verbs (honestly, if you saw the …umm…”interesting” ways of conjugating, you might better understand why after two months of lessons, I am still stuck on a vocabulary that consists of various polite greetings and ways of ordering wine, beer, and coffee — the essentials, of course!):  there are but two letters separate the verb for “teach”, which is tanit and “learn” which is tanul.

I am no linguist, so I can’t use that discipline to explain the short space which separates these two functions. But I do find it very fitting that the language makes these actions so closely related. As a relatively young teacher, who often the “newest” to the classroom of all my colleagues, I often feel like I’m rushing to keep up.  Sometimes, I look at a student taking a note about something I have said or scribbling down a question I have asked and I worry a bit…“what if I was wrong? ”   Of course, I try to make my teaching discussion-based so that there are multiple voices and opinions, and I strive to never make it seem as if I am truly professing “answers” to any literary or cultural project but rather prodding inquiry. But I still find myself sometimes doubting, wondering do I really know enough to be here?  For instance, I just assigned Toni Morrison’s  novel The Bluest Eye for my Contemporary American Women Writers class, and I am a bit nervous about it. Morrison won the Nobel for a reason: in addition to her amazing lyricism of language and her incomparable ability to dissect the mythos of American society, Morrison shies away from no “ugly” part of the human experience … particularly, when that experience is lived under oppression. The Bluest Eye contains, in my opinion, the best analysis of racialized beauty standards in the U.S., as well as pointed and timeless critique on class and gender — but it also contains poverty, rape and incest. It is an important book, but it is a tough book. As such, I worry about doing the great Ms. Morrison justice. My students, more used to the “canon” of English literature than the modern American things I teach, might not be used to such subjects…and I worry they will shy away. In preparation for the discussion, I wanted to assign a scholarly article that helped illuminate some of the major themes in the book, but I couldn’t think of one on my own. I sent out a call to friends in Ph.D. programs and from graduate school, and got a few good ones back…including several I had never read. But the abstract of one of the new articles sounded perfect. I assigned it.

And then I got that bit of nagging Am I a fraud at this professor business?  feeling. Wouldn’t a “real” professor have already known that? Sure, I know I am exaggerating the ideal that every literature professor has read every article they assign multiple times, but I still feel a little like I am rushing to keep up. Perhaps it is a feeling exacerbated by the fact that I do not have a Ph.D. I don’t plan on getting one any time soon, either — give me students over a dissertation any day — but I do know those extra six years of graduate school would have given me a six-years-longer list of read works … and then, of course, the pricks of inadequacy come.

But Gabi’s Hungarian lesson on the closeness of tanit/tanul was a good reminder that just because “teach” and “learn” are so different in English, it does not mean they are necessarily such different positions. The true teacher must always learn, after all: how can you effectively teach a true discussion if you already have your mind closed to a new “answer”? Then you are not really posing questions at all, but merely leashing your students along. Indeed, my course design style, in all of my classes, has included a fair bit of selecting all those “things I meant to read” texts. Sometimes I worried that such an approach would seem haphazard; but, oftener, I felt that my learning alongside the students could be quite beneficial, as it not only enriches me as a teacher overall but also helps me better understand and aid their struggles as I grapple with new work. My learning something new about The Bluest Eye, then, might indeed be the best way to teach it to a new group.

And maybe my students, although they might not be comfortable with the material, at first, can help me bring new eyes to a novel and writer I, as the teacher, think I know so well. Tanit/Tanul: atfer all, the space between us is not so wide.

Mr. Cope

Mr. Cope

A special post for all you yinzers (Pittsburghers, to the non-Pittsburghese speakers out there): the most iconic phrase of one of our most iconic speakers may have some Hungarian origin. That’s right, the infamous “Yoi!” screamed by the late, great Myron Cope at many a Steelers fumble or recount of the Immaculate Reception seems strikingly similar to a Hungarian phrase I learned in class the other night. 

 (For those of you not familiar with Mr. Cope, he was a very scratchy-voiced, loud sports announcer, who could have only been so famous in a city like Pittsburgh, which emphatically embraces anyone decidedly funny-looking, funny-sounding and staunching up-hip, so long as they love Pittsburgh back. When he died last year, the city went into a several weeks-long state of mourning.  Cope also made and patented the Terrible Towel,a black-and-gold towel waved in the air during Steelers games. Be aware that other teams who have copied said trend are merely imitating the five-time World Champion Steelers. Or Stillers, if we are to use Cope-speak/Pittsburghese here).

Anyway, we were listening to a song, ostensibly to pick up phrases used to buy food at the market. And a very amusing song it was: a husband asked his “darling, sweet wife” if he can pick up anything at the market, and she responds with “oh, I don’t need much…just …” and then reels off this huge list of goods. To which the husband responds “Jaj nekem!”  Gabi, our teacher, said this roughly translates to “oh me!” or “oh my!” or some similar exclamation of being overwhelmed. And, in Hungarian, the “j” sort of sounds like the English “y”…so the first word sounds like … you guessed it…Myron’s infamous “Yoi“.

Now, I haven’t been able to figure out anything on  Cope’s family origin, besides that he was Jewish (Actually named “Koppelman,” but an editor changed his byline in the 60s, fearing Anti-Semitism) and that the interesting phrases he used have always been referred to as Yiddish in origin.  But then, Yiddish is a “non-territorial” language, known to have originated in Central and Eastern Europe in the 10th century. Hungary is in central Europe… and prior to World War II, had a  large and strong Jewish community (one need only look at the beautiful Great Synagogue in Budapest to know this, but most accounts put Jewish settlers in the region as early as the 11th century).

And so, perhaps there is a Cope-Hungarian connection. In any case, while Myron may rest in peace (in a land where Jerome Bettis never grew old nor retired, where the words “Cleveland Browns” are never said, where the icy cold Iron City flows in rivers…) his Yoi! / Jaj! is alive and well in the crazy language I struggle to learn now.

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