Four Tongues

February 08, 2016

Elnézest!Excuse me!
Beszélsz angolul?Do you speak English?
Umm… egy doboz és ket… postkarten?Umm… a box and two… postcards? (Not knowing how to say postcards in Hungarian, I gave German a shot)
Ah, envelope elêg, nem dobozAh, an envelope is enough, no box (She was obviously trying to accommodate my English as well)

To my relief, the elderly lady turned to the machine, tapped a few buttons, and handed me a small slip of paper with a number on it.

Kösönöm!Thank you!
Szivesen.You're welcome.

She smiled. As I went to find a bench to sit on while I waited for the queue, I found myself grinning from ear to ear. I'd just had my first interaction (almost) entirely in Hungarian.


After being warned that Hungarian was "the second most difficult language to learn, after Chinese," and that English had more in common with Russian than with Hungarian, I was utterly daunted by the prospect of learning magyarul. Yet, after three weeks at Babilon Nyelviskola (nyelv- language, iskola- school), I'm starting to understand snippets of conversation (which is more than I can say for when I'm listening to Cantonese in Hong Kong), recognize signs and supermarket labels, and even stumble through short interactions without English! While its roots differ from romance languages, Hungarian (unlike Chinese) is similarly conjugated. Thus, the major learning curves for someone who has previously studied a romance language lie not in structure, but rather in pronunciation and vocabulary.

My favorite memory from Babilon: in our second week of classes, we were taken to Hungary's Great Market Hall and given 1,500 forint (just over 5 USD) to purchase ingredients for a sandwich-making competition. Since most of the vendors couldn't speak English, we had no choice but to call upon the few food-related vocabulary words we'd just learned and hope that the vendor could piece together our meaning. After memorizing the phrase for "cheesy bread," being rejected in our request to taste the pannonia cheese before buying it (we found that it's exactly like swiss), and even wandering into an Aldi to find dijon mustard, we returned to Babilon to put together our sandwich. The final product was "Jegy a Paradicsomba," or "A Trip to Paradise," an unintended pun, since paradicsom means both paradise and tomato. Naturally, we won first place ;)

sandwich Check out that beauty.


A lady tapped one of our tour guides on the shoulder.

Entschuldigung, sprechst du Deutsch?Excuse me, do you speak German?

Our tour guide shrugged, unable to understand. I had a sudden urge to respond, "Ein bisschen. Kann ich dir helfen?" Before I could speak, though, a voice of self-doubt leapt forth. Was that even proper grammar? What if she thought I could actually speak German and asked me something I didn't understand? Even if I understood her question, what if I wasn't able to translate our Hungarian tour guide's response to her? My thoughts kept playing ping pong: what if I could actually help her? What if I messed up, or worse, gave her the wrong directions?

By this time, the lady had turned around and I'd missed my opportunity.


请为,这里有没有袋子来装白菜?Excuse me, is there a bag I can put the bok choy in?
(Wordlessly, the lady walks over the desk and returns with a plastic bag)
(I browse a bit longer before checking out.)
新年快乐!Happy New Year!
新年快乐。Happy New Year.

For a second, a flicker of a smile crossed the cashier's face. I'd barely spoken two sentences to her, but I felt a sudden kinship, in a sense, connected by the threads of a language and culture a continent away. And for a moment in that Chinese supermarket, surrounded by familiar sounds and smells, I imagined that my family was there with me, shopping for our New Year's dinner, and that we weren't half a world apart.