How to Learn Hungarian – The Ultimate Guide

Learning a new language is a commendable act and you should already be proud of yourself for making this decision. Reading this might be your first, second (or hundredth) attempt towards reaching your goal of finally learning Hungarian. No matter where you are right now, learning Hungarian can be frightening and overwhelms at many stages if you don’t know what you’re doing.

 

In this ultimate guide to learning Hungarian, we will give you an anchor – a guideline through the language that you can always come back to whenever you are stuck. Whether you are a complete beginner or a seasoned Hungarian-fighter, we wrote this guide to catch you where you are and provide you with an overview and study guide that is both applicable (i.e. you can start instantly) and relevant: By learning the language based on this guide you will learn Hungarian in a way it is actually spoken, in real life, by real people. In short: We want to prepare you for having real conversations. If you can relate to this and conversational fluency is your ultimate goal, we now invite you to take at least an hour to read this guide and to define your next personal action steps.

 

If you don’t have an hour and are somewhat in a rush, no problem. Just print this guide as a handy PDF and come back to it later, whenever it suits you.

 



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No problem! Just enter your email address and we’ll send you the PDF of this guide for FREE,

 

including the 500 most frequent Hungarian words in a neat & handy list you can start learning with instantly.

You will also get our video- & email course on improving your Hungarian listening skills with our smart immersion method.




 

Quick navigation through the article:

Why learn Hungarian?

What are the main characteristics of the Hungarian language?

What kind of language is Hungarian? – A linguistic background by non-linguists

The Hungarian Alphabet and Pronunciation

The “nature” of the Hungarian language: Agglutination

How agglutination works: vowel harmony

The Hungarian word order

How to learn Hungarian step by step

1. Establish a steady study routine and know your “why”

2. Learn the alphabet

3. Learn the numbers

4. Prepare and start learning the 500 most frequent Hungarian words

5. Have your references ready

6. Build your first script

7. Immerse, immerse and immerse more

8. Learn vocabulary – the right way

9. Practice speaking – it’s time to get real

 

 

Why learn Hungarian?

 

You probably (hopefully) have your very specific personal reason to learn Hungarian. Maybe you fell in love with a Hungarian person, are in search of your Hungarian roots, happen to live in Hungary for a while or are simply just planning a visit to the country. And you might find that people look at you in a weird way when you’re telling them that you picked Hungarian as your next language to learn. That doesn’t matter, as you have plenty of further reason to study this wonderful language, apart from your personal one:

 

  • Speaking Hungarian really opens doors for living in or traveling in Central and Eastern Europe. Apart from being the only official language in Hungary at one of the official languages of the European Union, it is recognized as a minority language in Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Austria.

 

  • Hungary is a historically and culturally rich country and speaking the language will help you savor this in an authentic way. Hungary has really produced some of the finest poets, writers, and composers of the last centuries.

 

  • Hungary’s pop culture is extensive and manifests itself in contemporary music, novels, poetry, film making and so much more. Needless to say that the language is the key to all of these.

 

Here are a total of 35 good reasons for you to learn Hungarian that will always help you reconnect with your “why”.

 

 

 

What are the main characteristics of the Hungarian language?

 

If there is anything that Hungarian is known for to the general public it’s the fact that it’s “different”. Over the decades and centuries, this led to various myths and accusations.

 

“Hungarian is one of the hardest languages in the world. You will never learn it!”

 

“It has 457 grammatical cases.”

 

“There are absolutely no similar words to any languages whatsoever”.

 

None of these is true. Yes, we like to consider Hungarian to be “different” and somewhat unique, but this leads to both advantages and disadvantages. And why even compare? No matter which language you pick, you will always find reasons for why it is hard. You will always find evidence for what you choose to believe. Why not believe that you can learn it? 🙂

 

So, from a completely unbiased and objective, even scientific point of view, here are the main characteristics of the Hungarian language that you should be aware of:

 

 

What kind of language is Hungarian? – A linguistic background by non-linguists

 

Hungarian is a non-Indo-European language

 

This is what makes Hungarian so different from most widely-studied languages. Most European languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, etc.) belong to the Indo-European language family, the only exceptions really being Basque, Finnish, Estonian and Turkish. But even languages like Hindi, Urdu, and Persian are Indo-European, meaning that the English language has technically more in common with these than it has with Hungarian.

 

Another example for a (more widely-studied) non-Indo-European language is Mandarin Chinese (Sino-Tibetan language family) and mind you, it also receives its fair share of badges that label it the hardest language in the world.

 

Note to self: Different is not the same as difficult. We, humans, are just wired to fear the unknown and indeed often have a more difficult time tackling it. Here at Catch Budapest Flo and I believe that everyone with at least one somewhat functioning ear, regardless of their age, gender, or “language-genes” is capable of learning any language they want to. In the end, it all boils down to the right attitude, motivation, and techniques.

 

Hungarian belongs to the Ugric branch of the Finno-Ugric grouping of the Uralic language family

 

The three most well-known Finno-Ugric (and Uralic, for that matter) languages are Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian. Frankly, we have never heard of any other of the languages of this family, but a quick Wikipedia search will give you the Komi, Udmurt, Moksha and Erzya languages. Being in different branches, Hungarian in its application also has little to do with Finnish or Estonian. Probably like English has with, say, Albanian. Both are in the same language family but in different branches. Long story short – the Hungarian language is pretty unique and isolated as such.

 

Does Hungarian have anything in common with other languages?

 

In spite of the uniqueness of its language, Hungary is an industrialized nation in the heart of Europe and is anything but isolated. This also manifests itself in the language, meaning that Hungarian has borrowed plenty of international words that it incorporated into the daily use of the language. If you take a look at all those international words in the Hungarian language you will figure that you already know a lot more than you think.

 

We have collected 505 international words in Hungarian here.

 

 

 

The Hungarian Alphabet and Pronunciation

 

Hungarian uses an extended version of the Latin alphabet. Hungarian is officially an entirely phonetic language, meaning that you say and write everything based on the alphabet and the pronunciation of its single letters. This is very true for written Hungarian but in reality, spoken everyday-Hungarian often deviates significantly from its official character.

 

The alphabet has 44 letters, some of which are digraphs and there is even a trigraph and you will see lots of diacritics. Remember that each letter – never mind its unfamiliarity and funny strokes – represents one single sound and no more.

 

Consonants come in the form of single characters (b, c, d, f, etc.), digraphs (cs, gy, ty, etc.) or the digraph “dzs”.

 

All vowels come in their short and long forms – all that the stroke-diacritics indicate are simply a longer pronunciation of that respective vowel.

 

It really isn’t nearly as complicated as it looks and you can get an understanding of the alphabet in less than an hour.

 

Note to self: There is simply no way of getting around knowing the alphabet really really well when learning Hungarian. Seriously, don’t even consider learning anything else before you have a firm grasp of the alphabet and the Hungarian pronunciation. Putting in this effort at the very beginning will save you tons of time and sweat later on.

 

Here is our guide to learning the Hungarian alphabet in 4 steps.

 

Additionally, check out our “Learn the alphabet” chapter below, where we have added some great videos which explain the Hungarian consonants, vowels, and the Hungarian spelling rules, respectively.

 

 

The “nature” of the Hungarian language: Agglutination

 

We might just as well call agglutination the essence of the language – it’s one of those distinguishing elements that make Hungarian so Hungarian. Agglutination is related to “gluing” and is the process of sticking all those prefixes and suffixes to the beginnings and endings of the words, and thereby expressing time, location, relationships and everything else that grammar is for.

 

That’s how these insanely long words come about – instead of “in our house” (3 words in English) Hungarians would say “házunkban” (“house-our-in”) using one word only.

 

Other famous agglutinating languages are Turkish, Korean and Japanese.

 

In contrast, English is an analytical language. Instead of gluing directly to the words, it uses helper words (e.g. prepositions) to convey relationships.

 

German and Spanish, on the other hand, are fusional languages and are characterized by their systems of declensions (changing the form of the words) and verb conjugations.

 

 

How agglutination works: Vowel harmony

 

The term “vowel harmony” will be one of the first things you’ll hear when starting out with Hungarian and it seems to be the alpha and omega of learning the language. Vowel harmony is simply the method used for agglutination. Hungarian distinguishes between so-called “deep vowels” and “high vowels”:

 

  • a, á, u, ú, o and ó are deep vowels. Hungarians remember these with the word “autó” (car).

 

  • e, é, i, í, ü, ű, ö and ő are high vowels. Hungarians remember these with the word “teniszütő” (tennis racket).

 

In short, every suffix has multiple versions and you must pick the one based on the vowels of the root word. If a root word contains only deep vowels, you’ll have to use the deep-voweled suffix. It’s the same the other way round. If a word contains both high and deep vowels, it is usually the last vowel that counts.

 

If we look at the suffixes “-ban” and “ben” and stay with the previous example “házunkban” (“house-our-in”), you can see that “ház” has only the deep vowel “á”. Therefore, to express “in the house” you will use the deep-voweled version of the suffix for “in” (“-ban” instead of “-ben”).

 

 

The Hungarian word order

 

Another factor that distinguishes Hungarian from other, more common languages is its topic-prominent word order. In Hungarian, word order isn’t defined by regular sentence constituents (subject, verb, object) but rather by the speaker’s communicative intentions – what the speaker wants to emphasize.

 

You’ll often hear that Hungarian has a flexible word order, but it is really not true. It just follows other rules than most languages and word order is about the topic in question, not about the grammatical ingredients of the sentence.

 

In English, we would say “I’m going to the doctor.” (Subject-Verb-Object). Everything else (“Going to the doctor I’m.”, “The doctor going am I to.” etc.) is incorrect.

 

The same sentence in Hungarian can be put as

 

“Én megyek az orvoshoz.” (I’m going to the doctor.);

“Az orvoshoz megyek én.” (It’s the doctor I’m going to.);

“Én az orvoshoz megyek.” (I am going to the doctor (… and where are you going?));

“Megyek én az orvoshoz”. (something like “Trust me, I’m really going to the doctor!”); and

“Megyek az orvoshoz én.” (something like “Stop annoying me, I’m really going to the doctor!”).

 

All of them are correct and all of them somehow mean that I am going to the doctor. Still, they carry very different messages and only one of them is correct based on what it is that you really want to say.

 

Hungarian learners often state that sentence structure is their biggest challenge with the language and that they can never seem to get it right. Also, Hungarians mostly cannot explain why they said a sentence in a certain way, as it boils down to a matter of “feeling”.

 

This will sound like a no-brainer, but practicing and listening to a lot to authentic, native Hungarian material will be what will get you to nailing this, there really is no other way.

 

 

So what is the Hungarian language and why does it bear the badge of being one of the most difficult in the world, for better or worse?

 

To sum up, it is about multiple factors language learners are not used to. Hungarian is from another language family and consecutively works differently. The biggest differences are some aspects of the pronunciation, its agglutinative nature and its sentence structure that is hard to pinpoint. In the next chapter, we will outline a detailed study guide for you that will help you tackle Hungarian in a way that it makes sense, is smart and efficient.

 



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No problem! Just enter your email address and we’ll send you the PDF of this guide for FREE,

 

including the 500 most frequent Hungarian words in a neat & handy list you can start learning with instantly.

You will also get our video- & email course on improving your Hungarian listening skills with our smart immersion method.




 

How to learn Hungarian step by step

 

1. Establish a steady study routine and know your “why”

 

Instead of having bursts of productivity and droughts of not practicing the language at all for weeks, establish a steady study routine and stick to it. What’s important here is that your plan is realistic and aligns well with the rest of your life. 3 hours every day might not be suitable while you’re working a full-time job, but 45 minutes in the morning might be. I have often made the mistake of setting myself goals that weren’t feasible from a rational point of view and what made me give up was actually me disappointing me for not being able to keep up with what I’ve assigned myself. Don’t make that mistake.

 

Also, consider your natural “peak states”. Are you quite the morning person? Then an hour of concentrated Hungarian-learning in the morning can be good for you. Especially if you know deep down that you cannot even say a proper sentence in your mother tongue in the evenings after working and being busy the whole day. But maybe you’re a night owl like me – then, by all means, go for the evenings or nights when everything else is quiet! Or lunch-break, or whatever you see fit really. What I’m trying to say is that it’s way better to integrate your language-habits gradually, gently and as easily as possible than to force yourself. Fun and motivation are key for learning everything and studying when it works best for you is the basis of that.

 

Also, know your why, as it is your anchor you can come back to when things get rough. Set your very specific goals with learning Hungarian. It is very important to not be vague about your goals. “Fluency”, or “understanding conversations better” are not precise enough, as these aims are nothing that you can truly measure yourself up against. It is a lot more important, what “fluency” and “better understanding” mean to you, personally. Whether you want to be able to converse with your Hungarian partner’s family, are in search of your Hungarian roots, want to gain the Hungarian citizenship or master your daily life in Budapest or Hungary – what you personally take away from your Hungarian-learnings should largely depend on what you actually want to achieve.

 

In order to clearly define your goals, we suggest you take a piece of paper and write down your ideal outcome. First, think about how speaking Hungarian will improve your life and which doors it will open for you. Here are some examples of how you could formulate your goal, depending on your personal situation:

 

  • I’ll have the chance to develop a much closer bond to the family of my wife, husband or partner and actually take part in family gatherings.
  • I’ll master my everyday-life in Hungary with confidence, and won’t need a translator anymore every time I go to the doctor or need professional assistance with something.
  • My Hungarian roots are important to me and I will connect a lot better with them by learning the language.
  • Learning Hungarian will greatly help me achieve my goal of getting the Hungarian citizenship.

 

After that, think of the last situation that frustrated you with the language and imagine how you’d exactly want this situation to turn out instead in the future.

 

Maybe you’ve been trying to communicate with your husband’s family but felt like a complete outsider because of your lack of understanding. Now try to vividly imagine how you’re able to follow and participate in the next family gathering without feeling completely lost and overwhelmed.

After that, formulate a specific goal that you’ll start working on today. It is very important that your first mini-goal is something that you feel comfortable with. This means that it should be neither too low, nor too high. If you’re a complete beginner, aiming for understanding everything that’s being said at your father-in-laws birthday which is in two weeks and giving a 10-minute-speech in Hungarian would feel unrealistic and actually demotivating. However, being able to uphold a 5-minute conversation about a topic you’re comfortable with your wife’s brother that you’ll see in two weeks might be something worth working towards right now.

 

If you haven’t done it yet, it’s now high time for taking that piece of paper and putting your goals and visions on there. This sheet of paper will be your future reference for both the harder moments when you feel like giving up, but also the place your celebrate your wins – just think about how good it will feel to tick your first mini-goal off and formulate your new one!

 

Really, so many people just dive straight in having no idea what they’re doing, where they are aiming and what they actually doing all this for and are destined to quit. Learning Hungarian without a plan and routine is like starting a new business from the ground without thinking about it for a second. It’s possible, but it’ll make your life unnecessarily hard.

 

Establish a steady study routine and know your “why”.

 

 

2. Learn the alphabet

 

… and learn it properly. We have already touched on this further above but want to stress this even more, again and again. It is very alluring to skip through it, print out a cheat sheet and move on to the more fun stuff, but you will seriously never understand Hungarian if the alphabet doesn’t become your lifeblood. It is better to understand this in the very beginning, but it is never too late. So what should you do?

 

There are quite a few resources we can recommend and we suggest you use each of these, in this particular order.

 

Here is our overview of the Hungarian alphabet, sounds and a cheat sheet included.

 

After you have a basic overview of each letter and its corresponding sound, you need to understand how these sounds actually behave in words. Since spoken Hungarian can be anything but phonetic you really need a solid foundation of this in order to be able to follow a conversation later on.

 

Here is a great video series that explains the Hungarian consonants, vowels, and the Hungarian spelling rules, respectively:

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also suggest you download this epic Hungarian pronunciation trainer – it is well worth your $12. It will do two things for you: 1) Help you practice all sounds with flashcards in context (ie. in relevant words they appear in) and 2) rain your ear to so-called “minimal pairs” – help it to distinguish between similar words (e.g. doboz-toboz, örülök – őrülök, elvesz – elvèsz – èlvez, and there are a lot more). It’s a very useful tool to get a firm grasp of the Hungarian alphabet and sound system and will save you a lot of pain later on.

 

All in all, we recommend you spend around 10 days (1-1,5 hours per day) on just the alphabet, or until you feel like you really got it. It’s worth the trauma.

 

 

3. Learn the numbers

 

Numbers are everywhere and the most rational among us will argue that you can explain the whole entire world with them. While I’m not sure about that, it’s a fact that dealing with numbers is something you won’t find your way around easily. I’m not gonna lie, it won’t be the most fun activity of your Hungarian-journey but understanding how counting works in Hungarian is actually a pretty easy win.

 

Important: A no-brainer, but I really want to emphasise that you should learn every number and its (fast!) pronunciation. Hungarian cashiers hold the world record for their speed of pronouncing 5-digit numbers and it’s really frustrating to not understand what someone is saying, even though technically you know all words.

 

Here’s how to learn the Hungarian numbers:

 

This article explains how to learn the Hungarian numbers in 9 straightforward steps, including their pronunciation, ordinals and how to talk about time and dates.

 

The app Foreign Numbers is your best friend when learning to understand the spoken numbers. It’s basically a listening comprehension trainer for numbers where you can define the range of numbers you want to practice. It’s smart, helpful and free.

 

You don’t have to be able to count from 1 to 1,000,000 before moving on but I suggest you have a firm grasp of everything to a 1,000; most things (decimals, hundreds and thousands) to a million and have no problems with date and time.

 

Hungarian numbers build on themselves logically, so this shouldn’t take you more than 3-5 days with 1-2 days of understanding all concepts and 1-3 days of practicing them.

 

 

4. Prepare and start learning the 500 most frequent Hungarian words

 

While you don’t need to know all of them before moving on, the next crucial step after learning the alphabet and the numbers is to start learning the 500 most frequent words and to make this a part of your pre-established study routine.

 

Why? 

 

Just think about it – around 300 words make out 65% of all written material in English and with 2,000 words you have 80% of all conversations and texts covered. When it comes to learning Hungarian (or any language, really!) the Pareto Principle, aka Law of the Vital Few applies. The 500 most frequent Hungarian words are the ones you will encounter frequently, all the time – in written texts, conversations, movies, songs, books, you name it – they are everywhere. Focussing on these in the first place will help you to stay on track and to see what is important and what is not. 

 

We all have only a limited amount of energy, brain capacity, patience, and willpower. Learning 7 ways to say hello and goodbye for every time of the day is exactly what drains these precious reserves of ours without getting us anywhere, really. 

 

The problem is – how should you know what these most frequent words are in Hungarian?

 

We have collected them in a neat and handy list for you. We figured that most frequency list you’ll find via a Google search are pretty useless, as they include so many “grammatical words” (like on, at and the), words in their conjugated forms (megyek, mennek instead of just megy) and are often based on written language only which is useless for speaking.

 

So what I did was combine various frequency lists I could find and remove all “grammatical” words and variations that aren’t helpful. What’s left are 500 words that you can learn and apply instantly. All words come in their “original” form (no conjugations or declinations). I also cut out any words that you won’t find in regularly spoken Hungarian.

 

The list comes as a bonus with the PDF-version of this study-guide which you can download here.

 



Want To Save This Article For Later?

 

No problem! Just enter your email address and we’ll send you the PDF of this guide for FREE,

 

including the 500 most frequent Hungarian words in a neat & handy list you can start learning with instantly.

You will also get our video- & email course on improving your Hungarian listening skills with our smart immersion method.




 

Additionally, here is an article about the 15 most important verbs and how to use them. The most frequent Hungarian verbs are also the most versatile ones. For these, it isn’t enough to simply learn the infinitive – you will need to understand how to use them and I explain this here.

 

As mentioned, you don’t need to have them all in your long-term memory, but make it a part of your daily study routine to learn them. When in doubt about which vocabulary to learn, always go with the frequency list first. I will talk about how I suggest you approach learning vocabulary later on. For now…

 

 

5. Have your references ready

 

Get these now:

 

After learning the alphabet and numbers, make sure that you have the following Hungarian-learning ingredients in close proximity and add them to your shopping cart if necessary:

 

  • The alphabet – printed, with everything that helps you pronounce each sound (example words, little drawings, etc.). You can find our downloadable cheat sheet here where you can add your own comments.
  • A good Hungarian Phrasebook such as Lonely Planet’s Hungarian Phrasebookas your dictionary. It cuts through the noise and is way cheaper and a lot more practical than a proper dictionary which you really don’t need right now. Use the dictionary at the end.
  • A good grammar book – one that that you actually like and find comprehensible. We’re not gonna lie, there aren’t many of them. Routledge’s Hungarian Grammar is a great choice.

 

Bookmark these now in your browser:

 

 

  • ForvoFor learning about the pronunciation of a certain word. All pronunciations are recorded by native speakers (both male and female) so that you can get a good feeling for all those fine nuances a single word can sound like, depending on the speaker.

 

  • Wikiszótár – The best possible monolingual dictionary out there. Comes with pictures and multiple example sentences to every word. It explains the multiple usages of a word in an excellent way and also sheds light on all the suffixes and prefixes. Luckily, it works really well with Google’s page translation. A very powerful resource to learn about a word in context.

 

  • A good online Hungarian-English dictionary – We recommend the SZTAKI online dictionary or dict.cc. Both are good for when you need a quick translation fix.

 

  • Google Image SearchThe old version. The best way to learn about what locals actually understand by certain words is to type the vocabulary you’re unsure of into the Google Image Search. The captions additionally provide the words with a natural context. The captions disappeared with the more recent versions of the image search, that’s why we’ve linked the old one here.

 

  • Hungarian MultisearchA genius search tool that will instantly open up a Google Image Search, Forvo, the SZTAKI dictionary and Wikiszótár for you once you type in your word and press enter. Enable popups!

 

  • The Cooljugator Conjugates roughly 3,000 Hungarian verbs for you upon one click, in every tense, showing both their definite and indefinite conjunctions.

 

  • A list of the 500 most frequent Hungarian wordswe have prepared one for you and you’ll receive it along with downloading this guide as a PDF.

 

 

 

 

It is important that you don’t start by digging any of these but treat all of them as references. These are your resources where you can quickly look up words, rules, and pronunciation without searching endlessly. Getting and bookmarking these will save you a lot of unnecessary search effort later, so that you can spend on time on what matters most, which lies in the following steps…

 

 

6. Build your first script

 

To get a basic feeling for the language and your first boost of confidence it is important that you have a basic conversational script ready. This means nothing more than learning to talk a tiny bit about yourself and ask some basic questions.

 

After initial greetings, first conversations usually turn towards where you live and what you do. Just think about how you would typically introduce yourself in your mother tongue and translate this into Hungarian.

 

Here is my personal quick introduction as an example:

 

Juli vagyok, és 28 [huszonnyolc] éves vagyok.

Juli am-I, and 28 year-ish am-I.

I’m Juli and am 28 years old.

 

Budapesten élek, de tíz évet éltem Németországban és négy évet éltem Ausztriában.

Budapest-on live-I, but ten year(acc.) lived-I Germany-in and four year(acc.) lived-I Austria-in.

I live in Budapest but have lived in Germany for ten and in Austria for four years.

 

Beszélek magyarul, németül és angolul.

Speak-I Hungarian-in, German-in and English-in.

I speak Hungarian, German and English.

 

A barátommal, Floval élek. Együtt van egy online vállalkozásunk, amellyel segítünk másoknak magyarul tanulni.

The boyfriend-my-with, Flo-with live-I. Together exists an online business-ours, which-with help-we others-for Hungarian-in to-learn.

I live with my boyfriend Flo. Together we have an online business with which we help others learn Hungarian.

 

Szeretek utazni és falat mászni. Szeretek kint lenni a természetben és kirándulni.

Like-I to-travel and wall(acc.) to-climb. Like-I outside to-be the nature-in and to-go-on-excursions.

I like traveling and wall climbing. I like being outside in nature and making excursions.

 

You can express basically all your core data with “vagyok” (I am), “szeretek” (I like) and “élek” (I live).

 

Here are a few questions you can ask your conversational counterpart and a few possible answers for where it’s relevant.

 

Hogy hívnak? – What’s your name?

 

Answer: [Name] vagyok.

 

Honnan jössz? – Where are you from?

 

Answers:

 

Amerika / amerikai vagyok. – USA / I’m American.

Kanada / kanadai vagyok. – Canda / I’m Canadian.

Németország / német vagyok. – Germany / I’m German.

Anglia / angol vagyok. – England / I’m English.

Brazília / brazil vagyok. – Brasil / I’m Brazilian.

Magyarország / magyar vagyok. – Hungary / I’m Hungarian.

 

Hány éves vagy? – How old are you?

 

Answer: [Number] vagyok.

 

Mit dolgozol? – What do you work as? / What’s your profession?

 

Answers:

 

orvos – doctor

ügyvéd – lawyer

szabadúszó – freelancer

mérnök – engineer

közgazdász – economist

tanár – teacher

nyugdíjas – retired

 

… vagyok.

 

Mik a hobbijaid? – What are your hobbies?

 

Answers:

 

Szeretek…

 

sportolni – to work out

úszni – to swim

olvasni – to read

filmezni – to watch movies

túrázni – to hike

bulizni – to party

festeni – to paint

 

Does this sound too simple, stiff and robotic? You bet! However, it’s your first gateway to and anchor for the language. Nothing’s more frustrating than learning random vocabulary but not having the basics to talk just a bit about yourself.

 

Make scripting your personal basic introduction your first priority after the alphabet.

 

HungarianPod101 is a really great program for just that. No other language program does a better job than explaining the very basics and helping you get started from scratch.

 

 

7. Immerse, immerse and immerse more

 

We are writing this guide for those Hungarian-learners whose primary goal is to take part in real-life Hungarian conversations. If you’re learning the language for purely academic purposes, our approach won’t work for you. If you’re still with us, you will have to listen to the language. What do we mean by that?

 

How not to immerse in Hungarian

 

First, we will specify what we certainly don’t mean when we encourage you to listen to real-life spoken language.

 

Consider these as the four big don’ts of learning Hungarian.

 

  1. Do not shield yourself from “proper”, real-life Hungarian. This means, don’t stick to slow, articulated textbook audio in the hope of getting to the real thing (conversations) one day. We have created a whole (free) course on this debate about what to listen to; the bottom line being: It won’t get you there, ever.
  1. Do not listen to the radio or a whole movie in the hope of “getting used to it” one day. You won’t. It’s simply too hard and – not coming with any proper material – will only frustrate you.
  2. Don’t listen to Hungarian music or the radio in the background or while you sleep in the hope that it will magically bring you closer to understanding more. I mean, it certainly won’t do no harm to do this, but don’t get your hopes too high on effortless, passive learning while you cook or sleep – it’s not gonna work.
  1. Don’t start with actual attempts at conversation straight away. See, the problem with listening and trying to converse with native speakers is that it leaves little room to practice the listening. The conversation drags you along, you hang in there as long as you can, but eventually give up because you are left behind. Yes, you were immersed but there’s still no trace of feeling accomplished. In fact, these conversations are what make Hungarian-learners often give up for good.

 

How to immerse in Hungarian instead

 

Great, so how are you supposed to immerse then, now that we have ruled out all the conventional ways of listening and learning to speak the language? Immersion is all about being directly exposed to the language, after all. Still, at the same time, actual conversations are intimidating and can be downright discouraging for beginning and lower intermediate learners.

 

What you need instead is tons of native material that comes with a transcript. A transcript is kind of the key to the kingdom – the way you will get through to everything you cannot grasp by pure listening. Native material paired with a transcript is like taking part in real-life conversations with a remote control which helps you to pause, rewind and repeat what’s been said – at a slower speed if necessary.

 

Note: The exact steps on how to create and work your way through your own listening material for free would go beyond the scope of this article. We have outlined them in our free Hungarian course which comes along the PDF-version of this article (see below). It is all about improving your listening skills in a way it’s efficient and applicable.

 

Plus there is also an another, faster way. We have created the Smart Hungarian Audio Course to be just this kind of listening material that you need. It’s 20 real-life spoken dialogues coming with a transcript, translation, literal translation, vocabulary list and everything else and more that’ll help you improve your listening skills significantly, way quicker. We recommend you check it out if you have a few bucks to spare and want to speed up the process of our free course significantly.

 



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8. Learn vocabulary – the right way

 

Yes, the steps are in the right order; we really do recommend starting to learn vocabulary only after and based on your listening- and immersion practice. This way, you will avoid learning irrelevant vocabulary that you will never use and you will learn all vocabulary as it is applied in real life.

 

We’ve seen many Hungarian-learners starting out by learning various word lists (greetings, animals or even home appliances) and becoming frustrated, as they couldn’t apply what they have learned in real life conversations.

 

After you have tackled a conversation of a few minutes you’ll be left with plenty of new words and expressions. It is tempting to just start hammering them all into your brain, but there is a more effective and sophisticated way to do this.

 

Learn vocabulary based on your personal needs and goals

 

No one else but you can make the decision of which words to actually learn. No app, vocabulary book or even frequency list can tell you exactly what you’ll need to achieve your Hungarian-learning goals.

 

While being hyper-motivated and trying to squeeze as many words into your brain as possible is tempting, you’re much better off if you actually focus on what is important for YOU and your learning.

 

However, this is easier said than done. Often, we simply do not know which words are important to us and which aren’t – as everything can seem both very important and very unimportant at the same time.

 

Here are a few guidelines for which words to learn from an audio conversation:

 

  • Think back to when you probably last used this word / talked about a topic this word is related to in your mother tongue.
  • What is your personal style of speaking and what kind of age group/type of people are you most likely to converse with? Are you likely to hear or want to use many colloquialisms and urban slang?
  • Is this a filler word / conversational connector? Go for it! Fillers and “conversational connectors” are frequently recurring and also help you a lot with making your own speech more natural. Read more about this here.

 

To show you an example of how to pick the right vocabulary for you, here are the first 20 words of the vocabulary list of the first conversation of our Smart Hungarian Audio Course:

 

 

We have marked all basic words in green: words as “to give”, “to want” and “to speak” are among the most frequent in every language and Hungarian is no exception – learn them!

 

The three words marked with yellow are either fillers or otherwise frequently recurring expressions that are an organic part of almost any spoken conversation and we suggest you learn these too.

 

The words we have marked with red, on the other hand, are completely subject to your individual preferences. When was the last time you have talked about debt? Are you an entrepreneur or will you converse with people in the corporate environment? Are you likely to use slang (“egy csomó”)? If the answer is no to either of these words marked in red, skip them. If they are important to you, learn them.

 

How to learn vocabulary

 

There are a gazillion ways to learn vocabulary, starting from making your own classic vocabulary book, various pretty apps and advanced systems to get it into your brain. We (and the polyglots we admire) swear by the spaced repetition system (and Anki as its tool) to be the most effective and easy way. We will not go into the scientific background of this system and the usage of Anki here (but do go into the latter in our bonus vocabulary trainer that comes in addition to our Smart Hungarian Audio Course).

 

About the Spaced Repetition System (SRS)

 

Probably ever since your earliest school years, you’ve been told that in order to remember something you’ll need to repeat it as often as possible. This rote repetition mindset is what led many of us frenetically reading study material again and again before a test at school or university. And while an all-nighter filled with repetition sessions definitely helps to save the day and pass the exam, there seems to be something in the air that made us forget every single thing we’ve learned after handing in the test every single time.

 

The lesson? Rote repetition is good for passing university exams. However, it’s terrible for language learning, as it’s downright useless for your long-term memory. What you’ll want to go with instead is so-called spaced repetition – a method that is backed by several scientific studies ranging back to David Ebbinghaus’ 1885 experimental study called “Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology”. You have probably heard the abbreviation “SRS” or the term “Spaced Repetition System” already multiple times. So what is it exactly and how can it help you learn vocabulary more efficiently?

 

Coming back to the example of studying by repeating what you want to learn hundreds of times right before the exam and then never recalling it ever again – spaced repetition is kind of the opposite. Instead of drilling something into your brain by force, you can consider it a way gentler (and a lot more efficient!) approach to learning. With a spaced repetition system you will recall your vocabulary right before you are most likely to forget it; at pre-determined intervals that get bigger and bigger as time passes. Answering why exactly spaced repetition works would go beyond the scope of this article and tap into the world of neuroscience, but it is a method that polyglots swear by for decades.

 

Pro tip: Gabriel Wyner’s book “Fluent Forever” is an excellent piece of language-learning literature and we warmly recommend it if you want to dive deeper into the theory (and practice!) of spaced repetition.

 

Thanks to the advance of modern technology we don’t have to resort to handmade flashcards and set ourselves a timer for when to repeat each and every word. Which gets us to…

 

Anki as the language-learners best tool for using the Spaced Repetition System:

 

The terms “Spaced Repetition System” and “Anki” go hand in hand. Most language learners have heard of one or both of these terms (and if not, that is also fine).

 

In short: Making vocabulary more memorable with involving your senses and via using spaced repetition (i.e. repeating vocabulary just when it’s most efficient for your brain) is your best bet for learning vocabulary. For applying this method we suggest using Anki, as it’s the most efficient too. While there certainly are other flashcard tools out there too, Anki is the one that offers the most room and opportunities for customization and the maximization of your learning efficiency.

 

Anki and all its opportunities are a science in their own right and explaining its usage would go way beyond the scope of this article. However, thanks to the wonderful world wide web you have all opportunities to get started quickly and create your own flashcards.

 

Here are two excellent starting points that have helped us tremendously:

 

The Anki Online Manual including some video tutorials about the very basics such as:

 

The Anki subreddit – a place to ask all your questions, learn and communicate with other Anki-users and get additional tips. It’s a great community of 13k+ learners.

 

Emotions and your senses as the beating heart of your vocab-learning

 

Our most memorable memories are the ones that involve and combine a multitude of our senses. Before we tell you about three actionable steps to personalize your flashcards, here is a quick example to demonstrate this, so that you understand the importance of these steps:

 

Just think of the Hungarian word “Egészségedre!” (Cheers!). We don’t know about you, but every time I’m abroad and tell a foreigner that I’m Hungarian the same thing happens. If that specific person has or had any connection whatsoever before with Hungary or a Hungarian person, the conversation usually goes like this:

 

FOREIGNER: So where are you from?

JULI: Hungary.

FOREIGNER: Oh amazing, I’ve been there! // Oh great, I have a Hungarian friend! He has this weird name, it was [insert Hungarian name spoken with a foreign accent here]. Anyways, I know one word in Hungarian! Egészségedre? Is that right?

JULI: Yeah, it means cheers!

FOREIGNER: Haha great, I know, that’s all I remember, although I knew quite a few words more…

 

Now how is that possible? Why can someone years after having visited Hungary last, or years after having talked to a Hungarian person the last time remember such a random word as “Egészségedre!”? It doesn’t resemble any English word (or, for that matter, probably any other word of any language whatsoever), includes a sound that English doesn’t even use, and has five syllables and twelve letters (i.e. it’s LONG!). Still, it seems to make its way easily into people’s long-term memories. In the meantime, here you are, sitting above your vocabulary list, staring at a basic word like “akar” for the 500th time, still having no idea what it could possibly mean.

 

To understand this, let’s just for a second think about how our foreign friend most probably acquired “Egészségedre!”. That’s right – he or she was either out on an (in-)famous Budapest pub-crawl or just casually had a drink with his or her Hungarian friend. In either case, pálinka and its exorbitantly strong taste and smell certainly played a role. After clinking glasses and cheering with “Egészségedre!” our foreign friend drowned the strong liqueur that burned its way straight to his / her stomach. He asked himself when he last had a drink this strong and remembered this fun evening the smell and the taste for a long time. “Egészségedre!” just stuck naturally for years to come. The word simply became a part of the experience; of the memory.

 

You, on the other hand, put in so much effort! Instead of downing shots, you were diligently sitting at your desk, staring at your vocabulary list, writing down “akar” again and again and trying to get it into your brain. Still, the next time you’d need the Hungarian word for “to want” you simply cannot recall it. Frustration slowly arises and you ask yourself how on earth you should ever be able to build up a decent pool of vocabulary in your brain.

 

Do you see where I’m getting here?

 

While our foreign friend actually had a lot of fun and sensual stimulation (taste, smell, feelings, etc.) while learning his word you are stuck with a chore – an exercise neither you nor your brain like doing.

 

And while you, unfortunately, cannot connect the experience of a great night out, drinking, strong tastes, smell and making new friends to every single word you learn, we can still draw a big conclusion from this simple example:

 

Vocabulary that is connected to actual memories with all your senses involved is a lot more memorable.

 

Here are three actionable steps you can take instantly to make your flashcards more memorable:

 

1. Add your own images

Seems trivial, but bear with us. Google Image Search is an unbelievably powerful language-learning tool if you use it the right way. What you have to do when finding the right images is look is type your search term in Hungarian; into the older version of Google Image Search which you can find here (the latest version comes without captions, so we always use this older one).

 

This will do lots of things for you:

 

  • It will show you what this term actually means in Hungary, for Hungarians;
  • you will get a plethora of further example sentences for the word or term, used in real-life context;
  • you will get to pick an image for the word that appeals to you most and will help you to remember it best;
  • by going through this quick process for every word you will create a visual memory for it which brings you one giant step forward when it comes to committing it to your long term memory.

 

2. Add sound (the pronunciation) to every word

To add a further sense to connect with (and to actually know how to say what you want to say!) always learn words together with their pronunciation. No exceptions. “False learning” is the meanest thing you can do to yourself – and unlearning wrong pronunciation is so much worse than learning the right one. Forvo is your go-to place for this particular feature. You will have to set up a free account for unlocking the “download” feature that will let you add the pronunciations to your flashcards.

 

3. Create and add your own memory hooks to every new Hungarian word

When learning any vocabulary and putting it into Anki, try to add your very personal connection to the word. For example, when trying to remember the word “gondol” (to think), think of the last time you really racked your head around something. Any major decisions you had to take recently? The more personal and memorable this is, the better. Add a few words to the word you’re learning you strongly associate with this term. Apart from hearing and seeing, this stimulates your emotions and connects your brain even deeper with the word.

 

Note: Explaining how to install and use Anki and add all these features to your flashcards would go beyond the scope of this article. We have mentioned our favorite Anki resources above. Besides, our Smart Hungarian Audio Course comes with a vocabulary trainer that walks you through the installation and Anki-interface step by step.

 

 

9. Practice speaking – it’s time to get real

 

You are now well-prepared. If you have followed the instructions in this guide you have a firm grasp of the alphabet and the numbers, can talk a bit about yourself, ask basic questions and are at the point where your main efforts lie in practicing real-life spoken Hungarian conversations in a deliberate, comprehensible way. You are progressing every day, learning vocabulary that is actually useful for you and so that you can apply it. If you have done all of this in a structured, established study-routine, assuming you have one hour every day with weekends off, around 4-6 weeks have now passed from the very beginning until this point.

 

It’s time to have the talk!

 

First, we want to dispel the myth that you have to be or live in Hungary in order to actually be able to practice speaking the language, as this is plain BS. Since you are reading this guide, chances are that you have internet access and this is really all that you need in order to speak any language you want, anytime, from anywhere.

 

Online video calls such as Skype enable us to do this. The only questions really are is where to look for conversation partners, what kind of conversation partner to look for and how to practice with a conversation partner in the most efficient way.

 

The right Hungarian conversation partner for you

 

You basically have two options here: practicing with a tandem language partner, a tutor or practicing with a proper Hungarian teacher. Both of these options have their pros and cons.

 

Tandem partners are usually free but the exchange relies on its mutuality, meaning that your language partner will want to practice your mother tongue with you as well. Since your partner doesn’t usually have all the skills that require teaching a language, designing your progress here is mostly up to you if you want to get the most out of your practice. Also, prepare that your language tandem mostly won’t be able to answer all your questions regarding specific grammar rules or even vocabulary. This means that you’ll probably have to do a lot of extra work after the exchanges.

 

If you don’t want to spend money and don’t mind the act of giving back in the form of helping with your mother tongue and are a structured person who doesn’t need much hand-holding, a tandem partner is a great solution.

 

Conversing with a tutor usually has a fee which is lower than learning with a teacher. Tutors do have experience teaching the language and are able to answer most of your questions. They don’t hold a teaching degree however, so a large part of structuring and topic design will still be up to you and your efforts.

 

If you are ready to spend a little money, are ready to look some things up for yourself but prefer a little structure and guidance and don’t want to teach your own language yourself, a language tutor is what you want.

 

Practicing with a teacher costs money (but has become very affordable!) and the focus will be solely on you and your learning progress. A teacher will most likely have a certain kind of syllabus, will design the lessons according to your level and will be able to answer all the questions you have regarding the language.

 

If you want structure, guidance immediate answers and are ready to spend money, a language teacher will work best for you.

 

Finding your conversation partner

 

There is an abundance of options online for finding someone to speak in Hungarian with from which we want to highlight two, as these will cover all your needs.

 

If you’re looking for a free tandem partner, look in Facebook groups for language exchange. Either, you look in Hungarian-specific groups (the best one being the Learn Hungarian – Tanuljunk Magyarul-group) or you go for the more general ones and look for a tandem partner there.

 

Language Exchange has 16,000+ members and Vivalanga has 15,000 members, but there are a lot more.

 

If you’re looking for a tutor or language teacher, look no further than iTalki. It’s a wonderful platform that makes this world a better place by connecting language learners with teachers via Skype lessons. You’ll both find teachers and community tutors here for very fair prices.

 

How to get the most out of your conversations

 

This is the actual dealbreaker. Yes, finding the right kind of conversation partner is important but the way you approach your lessons is crucial. Your goal here is not to learn a specific curriculum but to put what you have learned into conversational practice. That’s why I’m always talking about your “conversation partner” instead of your teacher. Conversations should be all that this is about. In order for this to happen, you will have to take each and every hour you converse into your own hands. While a teacher will have a certain idea on how to proceed, you will still make the most of your lessons if you approach them with a specific idea in mind, based on what is important for you to learn. That’s why you’re going one-on-one after all – to give yourself the freedom of this kind of customization; fitting it all to your personal needs.

 

So how exactly do you make the most of every lesson?

 

If this is your first Skype-conversation, you’re no doubt going to be nervous. The good thing is, you already have a lot of momentum, as you’ve been listening to natural, conversational Hungarian for weeks already and have your script about talking about yourself as an anchor.

 

Before every lesson, it is important that you know exactly what you want to get out of it. Maybe you want to perfect talking about yourself or maybe there’s something in the natural conversational audio that you want to dive deeper into. Perhaps you want to learn to talk business, talk about skiing, hiking or the last book you’ve read. Whatever it is – make it relevant to you. Don’t talk about things you will never encounter in real life.

 

Make sure that you have all your necessary references open during the conversation: an online dictionary, a relevant word list for your topic, Google Translate or whatever it is that will help you.

 

Your main goal should be to not switch to English; to simply eliminate that option. Your conversations with your language partners should come as close to real-life, full-on Hungarian conversations as humanly possible.

 

How often and how frequently should you do these conversations?

 

There is really no correct answer to this; it very much depends on your level, budget, and preferences.

 

If you’re a complete beginner who has been following this guide, we suggest you spend one unit of your core study time on a conversation, after you’re about 1-1,5 months in.

 

The same is true for you if you’re not a complete beginner but still feel like you’re unable to have actual conversations (even though you’ve been studying for months already).

 

If you’re already advanced in your learning and are using this guide to refine your learning process, go with a conversation partner as needed, e.g. if you want to learn to talk about a specific topic.

 

What about having actual conversations?

 

Have them, whenever you can. Following this guide isn’t about shielding yourself from practicing Hungarian IRL whenever you can. It is just a more structured approach to reaching your goal. We’ve seen learners solely relying on textbooks and others solely relying on becoming “streetsmart” and just picking it up on the side via daily conversations with friends and family – none of them worked. That’s the reason I wrote this guide – to provide you with more structure and show you what works instead.

 

It’s time!

 

Learning Hungarian (and any language, really) is a rewarding, enriching and fun adventure and it is very important that you see it that way. It’s a big project and does require work but so do all the good things in life.

 

Are you ready for the challenge? If so, here’s the first step you can take right now:

 

Formulate your next step. Take stock of where you are now and define a clear next small action you can start working on as of today.

 

Even better, drop your next step below as a comment, so that others can learn from you too. Once you’re done, don’t forget to share this guide with all your fellow Hungarian-learners who could use a little help, nudge and structure.

 

Happy learning – jó tanulást!

 



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No problem! Just enter your email address and we’ll send you the PDF of this guide for FREE,

 

including the 500 most frequent Hungarian words in a neat & handy list you can start learning with instantly.

You will also get our video- & email course on improving your Hungarian listening skills with our smart immersion method.




Disclaimer: Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning that, at no additional cost for you, we will earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase. Nevertheless, we only recommend these products because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions we make if you choose to buy something. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your Hungarian-learning goals.

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