Recently I’ve started learning Hungarian. I love learning languages, but it’s been a long time since I learnt a new language from scratch, particularly a non-Indo-European one. After I'd been learning it for a few weeks into my new project, I happened to teach a small class of beginners for a week, and found that I could relate to their experience much more than usual. I thought I would share some of my reflections here.
Firstly, I was struck by the total reliance on a dictionary (or a bilingual teacher). When my lexicon is nearly empty, there are no resources I can draw on to use circumlocution or understand a definition. I can’t “say it using different words” because I don’t have enough different words. This makes me reconsider what my phone or dictionary policy might be for beginners.
Once I’ve looked a word up, it’s still not straightforward. Learning vocabulary – even basic things like everyday food, colours, and so on – is much more challenging when the words are totally alien to you. When I learnt Portuguese, I could remember the word for blue (azúl) even though it’s very different from the English, because of the connection to azure. But the Hungarian – kék (pronounced something like "cake") – has no cognates and there is no hook to hang it on in English, and so I found myself using weird connections to aid my memory: in this case, a fairy cake with bright blue icing.
At school I used to frown upon my classmates who had similar memory techniques (“You should remember it using a related word,” I would say, or think, superciliously.) But being a beginner now, I’m finding that using such wacky visual clues is a very effective way of getting words to stick.
The slipperiness of these alien words also means that my mistakes make me incomprehensible. “The car is want,” I’ll say. “The soldier car?” “The picture car?” “The blue car? Yes! The blue car!” It can be the same in English. “I look cheese.” You’re looking for cheese? “I lunch cheese.” You have cheese for lunch? … Oh – you love cheese!
The difficulty of pronouncing words has also made me more sympathetic to my students. I don’t find any of the sounds in Hungarian particularly difficult, but stringing them together into words can be very challenging – it takes me several goes to produce a polysyllabic word correctly, and even then it won’t be fluent. Suddenly I found a lot more patience with my beginner students who seem unable to repeat a short phrase accurately after me. “It’s not that hard!” I’m tempted to think. But yes, when you’re a beginner, it really is.
Another thing I’ve been reflecting on is the natural order in which language features are learnt. Brought up on Latin, I’m familiar with the concept of the accusative, and I am fully aware that in Hungarian I have to use it in phrases like “I would like some tea” – but it takes an unbelievable amount of effort to actually produce it. Even in the middle of a list of sentences “I would like tea, I would like cheese, I would like bread, I would like salt …” I’ll produce it fine a few times round, and then it just disappears from my mouth as if I’d never been taught it. In English, it reminds me of the third person –s, which linguists tell us is one of the last grammatical markers to be acquired in the “natural order” and I feel a lot more understanding of students who seem unable to remember to use it.
All this makes repetition absolutely key. Every time I learn a new word, or a new grammar point, I want to say dozens of simple sentences using it. It’s not just that I know repetition is good for me - I can feel in my head and my mouth that it won’t really be there until I’ve said it ten or twenty times. Interestingly, my teacher is ready to move on to a new word or a new point long before I am. Much as I’m curious about this fascinating language and eager to learn new things, the desire for repetition is so powerful, it’s almost like a primal need for water or warmth.
Learning a language from scratch, I can feel that the language circuits in my brain are having to work extremely hard – saying “I have lunch at one o’clock” in Hungarian requires far more brainpower than discussing my opinion of a film in French. This is partly why I need repetition – I can feel that my brain will overheat if I go too fast – but it also means that I need to learn chunks as chunks. My teacher, knowing that I love languages, breaks phrases down for me – but I simply cannot take in the information, fascinating though it is, because that area of my brain is already so overloaded with this new language. It must be even worse for students who aren’t fascinated by language per se, so I can understand why I get glazed looks when I try to deconstruct fixed phrases. Maybe it's best just to teach them as chunks for now.
And finally, new language exhaustion. During the first few weeks, learning a new language is one of the most mentally tiring activities you can do. Even if I’m really keen, after about 30 minutes to an hour, my brain is fried and I have to stop. I’m glad that where I teach, our beginner classes are usually 60 minutes rather than 90, but even that can be too much. We all need a break sometimes – but beginner language learners even more so.
One final thought – learning a new language is a lot of fun, and it gives you new insights into your own teaching. If you haven’t learnt a language for a while, maybe it’s time to have another go – especially one that is not related to English!