The Immensity of Language

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While the Varga graduates of 2019 are off to their university orientations, we teachers are having orientations of our own: meeting new colleagues, participating in meetings, and getting ready for the school year, which starts on Monday. As I contemplate the coming year, take part in meetings in Hungarian where I really understand what is being said (not just in general, but in detail), and recover from a few recent language embarrassments and mishaps (where I misunderstood what was being said and responded accordingly), I think about the immensity of language.

You can study a language for a decade, study it well, study it with vigor and openness and play, and still not reach fluency in it. That’s what makes it worthwhile! Languages would be dull if they could be mastered in a year. Learning a language takes patience, not only with the language, but with others and the self. Especially the self. Supposedly young people learn languages faster than older people, but even for them, it is not easy.

After our year in Moscow (when I was fourteen), and even in college three years later, some people called me fluent in Russian. I was not fluent. I had good pronunciation. I could read Dostoevsky without a dictionary (and with only a few lapses in understanding). I could speak confidently (albeit with mistakes) on familiar topics. But put me in an unfamiliar situation, and I might not know what to say at all. This came clear in graduate school, when I had to take a proficiency test. I reached a level that qualified me to teach the language, but the last task stumped me completely. I was given a situation: “You come home to your apartment but find that your doorknob is broken. You have to go to the neighbor to ask for some tools to fix it.” I didn’t know the words for this–or rather, I knew them, but didn’t know to use them here. A basic situation that left me speechless!

Remembering this–and this was after I had majored in Russian in college–I can forgive my level of Hungarian right now. I am making lots of progress, but there is a huge amount to learn, and I still get stumped sometimes in basic situations.

The reason is this: A language is life, history, thought, and art. It is not simply a set of words and structures, although those are essential; many other things can affect your expression and understanding. First, the more you know of the context–the background information, the situation at hand–the better you will fare. Second, in the early stages there’s a good deal of luck. A single word you don’t know, or a grammatical construction that you don’t immediately grasp, can throw you off. It takes time to get beyond that uncertain stage. Even then, there are nuances that you might miss. Third, even when you border on fluency, you make mistakes. Mistakes are part of it all; they bring out not only the differences between languages, but language complexity in general.

Isn’t this part of the reason to learn a language in the first place? To go into that immensity–not only the grammar and vocabulary, not only the countless variations, but also the literature, songs, plays, and films? These would not exist if language were a simple, compact matter. If we made no mistakes, there would be no poetry either.

Given all of this, how does one go about improving? A language, being a combination, demands one too. I have to be immersed in the language–with no one translating for me, no one stopping me from listening, listening, listening. I attend literary events and take in as much as I can. I speak the language whenever I can, with colleagues, friends, and strangers, even making mistakes, because that is how I learn. I have wonderful “language exchanges” where we meet regularly and speak first entirely in English (for the other person’s practice) and then entirely in Hungarian (for mine). I also read every day, sometimes without looking anything up, sometimes slowly, with a dictionary. I write, too, and learn songs and poems.

Systematic study is also necessary. Recently I have started a vocabulary log, since vocabulary is my main obstacle right now. I watch and listen especially for words that I hear often but don’t know, or words that I really like for some reason. I look them up and write them down(or vice versa). That helps a lot. The grammar is in better shape; I understand how much of it works and am getting more adept at using it. Hungarian grammar is thrilling; once you start using the -hoz, -ként, and other cases with ease, you can say all sorts of things. And don’t get me started on the translative case, my favorite of them all!

If someone were to ask my advice on how to learn a language, I would say: do it all. Listen, speak, read, write, sing, learn vocabulary, study the rules, take in as much literature as possible, listen to songs. Do these last two for their own sake; they will bring the language with them. Beyond all of this, don’t be afraid of the difficulty, don’t be afraid of things you don’t yet understand. And above all, don’t be afraid of mistakes.