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April 22, 2013
By Chris Roth

 In the early 90's, I lived in Gödöllő, Hungary, a rural village outside of Budapest where I taught English to elementary school children. By far, it was one of the most interesting and rewarding experiences of my life. I lived there with my best friend Jeanne, from Texas, who also taught English but to university students. We shared an apartment and tried to fit in to the traditional Hungarian lifestyle (as much as two city girls from Dallas could anyway).

(I took these photos almost 30 years ago with an instamatic camera.) 

Hungarian Village

View from our apartment in October...

Hungarian Village

And in November...

Hungarian Village

And in December...

Americans have a passion for travel. Typically, however, we travel to areas that have been "Americanized" for us. The locals speak English and serve us American food with lots of ice in our drinks. That was hardly the case for us in Gödöllő.  Almost no one spoke English and Hungarian is not an easy language to learn. 


Contrary to what many Americans think, Hungarian is not a Slavic language. It is actually Uralic, distantly related to Finnish (of all things!) with a Latin alphabet. So it looks like English with extra letters. The language is logical. What you see is what you pronounce, unlike English which has so many frustrating rules. My friend and I did the best we could to learn practical Hungarian so we could function in our new digs.

The longest Hungarian word

I found this on the Internet. I actually do know what it means although it doesn't make much sense. Something like "due to your continuous pretending to be indesecratable". It was part of a Hungarian language lesson I took to show how prefixes and suffixes can be continually added to a core word.


Grocery shopping was where we needed our practical Hungarian the most. My friend Jeanne sometimes had to purchase a kilo of cheese when she went to the market because she didn't know how to say "half" or "a quarter". Do you know how much a kilo of cheese is? Over 2 pounds! And then there was the time I thought I was buying cheese at a corner shop but when I got home I bit into a big piece of yeast cake.  I tried to stick to buying rolls after that.


In the school where I taught, I was required to teach only in English. To speak any Hungarian during a lesson was frowned upon. While this methodology is proven to be successful, it was quite frustrating.  Sometimes I felt like I was in a game of charades, flailing my arms and dancing around. Once, I had a student who wanted to know the definition of hillbilly. Try acting out that one.


Often times, I had to cheat. One of my Hungarian friends made an emergency language book for me. Included were all of the important commands that any teacher needs...sit down, listen to me, be quiet.  I also had the translations for idioms I found difficult to explain such as "off the wall", "bogus", "passing the buck", and "thick as thieves".  The kids loved these.


Since I was not a university trained English teacher, I had to make up my own set of teaching methods. The teaching books assigned to me were in British English. That was usually the case for those teaching English as a foreign language in Europe. I don't speak British English and I didn't want to confuse the kids so I taught both. First, I would teach the lesson in British English and then I would tell them how an American would say it. I didn't care which they chose they just had to be consistent. Some may ask what is the big difference so let me give you an example. One of our lessons was a situation at a school dance where you had to learn appropriate things to say. The first was where a boy approaches a girl and says, "Might I have the pleasure of this dance?" If this doesn't speak volumes about the difference between the two sides of the pond I don't know what does. Of course, I didn't tell the kids that if you say this in the US you run the risk of getting beat up on the playground. I just explained the American way of asking, "Wanna dance?" You should have seen the smirks on their faces as they looked back and forth on the black board at the two options.  


I remember one very odd chapter in the instructional book for conversational English.  The lesson was about Howard Hughes and how he invented a push-up bra for Jane Russell. I'm not sure in what social setting that conversation would ever happen, especially for elementary school students.  We skipped that lesson.


Often times, I would make up my own lessons. My favorite was about Thanksgiving. Feeling a little displaced and homesick toward the end of November, I decided to teach the kids about our quintessentially American, holiday. I stayed up late making construction paper Pilgrim hats and Indian headdresses and choosing the right shades of lipstick for war paint. The next day at school, I got mixed looks of apprehension and "she must be crazy" staring back at me when they learned I was going to paint their faces. But everybody participated and by the end of class they had received much more than an English lesson. These children were able to peer into the window of an American child celebrating a cherished holiday that is rich in history and culture. Wide eyed parents entered my classroom when they saw their kids faces. Every student left excitedly retelling their experience. I am certain no lessons of American Thanksgiving have ever been in a British English language book.

Thanksgiving in Hungary

This is how Jeanne found me when she came home from work.

What selfies looked like in the 90's.

Hungarian classroom

My awesome students.

Hungarian English class

Zoltan is the top left student. Such a smart and interesting child. I wonder what amazing things he and all of them have accomplished since this picture was taken.


Tags: Hungary
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