Oofda Magyarul

I would like to share some of my hits and misses when it comes to speaking the fabulous language that is Hungarian.  During my relatively short time here, I have experienced many moments where I think to myself, ‘This language is impossible.  I am never going to learn it.  I bet Hungarians don’t even know this language.  They probably just guess at what words to use and get lucky…all the time.’  Whereas, on the other hand, there have been moments where I think, ‘Hey, I’m getting this!  This language is not that bad.  I may actually be able to learn it!’  I will let you judge my progress for yourself after you read these stories.


1)      I was helping another person from the congregation watch the kids during a church event one afternoon when I sat down by a very sweet little girl and started drawing pictures with her.  After a bit I asked her, “Mi a neved?” [what is your name?].  In Hungary, people say their last name first and first name second, so she spat out a mouthful of Hungarian syllables and then smiled.  I had no idea where her last name stopped and her first name began, so I smiled back at the girl of whom I still do not know the name and said, “Szép név” [beautiful name].  Next I asked her, “Hány éves?” [how old are you?], to which I got, “Tessék?” [pardon?] in return.  Again I asked her how old she was and she asked me to repeat the question.  Thinking, ‘Third time’s a charm,’ I asked her one more time, only to get the same response.  Apparently my pronunciation was so terrible that she was not able to understand me.  Feeling a bit discouraged, I waved my hand as if to say ‘never mind,’ and the conversation was dropped.  At least I tried.

2)      At the Gyerekház Szülinap (Children House’s birthday), an adorable little girl rattled off a string of questions 100 miles per hour.  All of her words ran together.  As far as I know, she could have said only one word…some words can be really long!  Since I did not understand a thing she said, my default response was, “Nem tudom” [I don’t know].  After about the sixth time of saying that I did not know what she was talking about, she looked at me with her big brown eyes and said, “Nem tudsz semmi” [you don’t know nothing].  I understood that, haha!

Hits (well, kind of):

1)      After running the sentence through my head since breakfast, the time had finally come.  I had to use the Hungarian I spent all day practicing to tell my supervisor Misi that I was going to go to Nyiregyhaza to have lunch with my fellow YAGM Kristen, her supervisor Erzsebet, and her friend Dora.  Misi understood what I said!  I was so proud of myself!  I can speak this language after all!  Misi flashed his cute little smile and asked me a one word question in Hungarian, to which I had to respond, “What?”.  At that point, all the wind was knocked out of my sails and I was left looking at him with a bewildered expression…maybe I really can’t speak Hungarian…  Misi smiled again and switched back to English.

2)      Kristen and I planned an outing in Nyiregyhaza this past weekend during which I had to use the ATM and get some decongestant to help fight the intense sinus infection I have been wrestling with for the past three weeks.  When we walked into the pharmacy I asked Kristen if I needed a prescription to buy the decongestant.  She had no idea, and then we realized that we did not know the word for prescription so she whipped out her little dictionary to look it up.  While this was going on, the store clerks were asking if they could help us, but we did not even know the words to describe what we were looking for.

I had to use the ATM before I could buy the medicine, so we left the pharmacy and found a machine right around the corner.  It was, of course, all in Hungarian, so I typed in my PIN and Kristen and I were faced with the task of deciding what word meant ‘withdrawal;’ not an easy task, by the way.  From a previous transaction Kristen knew the words for ‘balance check,’ which ruled out one possibility, but the screen was full of phrases that we did not recognize.  Dictionary in hand, we tried to determine the right button to push but we were taking too long and the machine started beeping at us.  I got super nervous, hit ‘balance check,’ and grabbed my card.  After a short respite we tried again.  We still didn’t know the right button to push but we could always hit ‘cancel’ (that button was in English).  I took a wild guess and got it right!  I was able to make a withdrawal!  How exciting!

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Only after going over what words to use to ask for the decongestant did I approach the desk and ask the nice women if I needed a prescription to buy the medicine.  It was a successful transaction and I walked out with a box of nasal decongestant, which has quickly become my most prized possession.

Hungarian is definitely a challenge, but I just have to keep laughing at myself.  I am sure there are plenty more misses that I am completely unaware of simply because I do not know what I do not know.  However, there is one thing I know for sure: Even when I think I understand Hungarian, I really don’t understand Hungarian.  Not yet, at least.

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