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  • Writer's pictureOrsolya Varró

Using Foreign Languages in Academia

In my first blog post, I’d like to share my experience with working simultaneously in three languages, Hungarian, English, and French. I didn’t ask anyone to proofread this text on purpose, to demonstrate the point of the article.

Hunglish is my second language

Hungarian belongs to the Ugric branch of Uralic languages. It has 13 million native speakers, most of whom live in the Carpathian Basin, ca. 10 million in present-day Hungary. Its closest relatives are Mansi and Khanty, both spoken by ethnic minorities in present-day Russia. Hungarian was heavily influenced by Iranian and Turkic languages while our ancestors were roaming the Great Steppe. After the conquest of the Carpathian Basin in the 9th-10th century, Hungarian tribes learned the terminology of settled life, Christianity, and Western political constructions. However, our language stands practically alone in Europe, as Finnish and Estonian belong to the distant Finnic branch of the family.

Hungarian is radically different from English. Our frequent, characteristic mistakes constitute a so-called ‟Hunglish”, which many of us are painfully self-aware of. Our prominent ‟Eastern European” accent comes from the differences in the two languages’ phonology and prosody. Hungarian is a topic-prominent, agglutinative language. We use a wide variety of suffixes that also follow a pattern of wovel harmony. Verbs have prefixes, personal suffixes, indefinite and definite conjugations, and there is a whole group of verbs with a slightly different pattern of conjugation (the so-called -ik verbs). Hungarian uses one present tense, expresses futurity with the auxiliary verb ‘fog’ and contextual references, and, from the four historical past tenses, modern Hungarian has retained only one. The frustrating abundance of tenses in English is every student’s worst nightmare.

My relationship with English

Foreign languages are mandatory in the Hungarian educational system: you choose one in 4th grade and a second one in 9th. The majority of primary schools teach English and German, most high schools offer at least one Romance language, which can be French, Italian, or Spanish, and, sporadically, Latin. My parents let me choose on both occasions and I decided for German and French. My logic was that mastering a Germanic and a Romance language would help me learn other languages from the respective branches of the Indo-European family. Moreover, I argued, English was so omnipresent, that sooner of later I would be compelled to learn it anyway.

Luckily, I was right. My only formal training in English was three months of private lessons with Janka Kovács, a fellow MA student in history and English literature, now a PhD candidate at ELTE. My first official encounter with English was my IELTS exam in 2016, where I scored 7.5 (C1). Few months later, I was accepted to CEU’s one-year MA in Medieval Studies, which turned out to be a pivotal moment in my life.

Day to day use: speaking

My first month at CEU was exhausting. And by that I mean, I missed a mandatory field trip at the end of the second week, because I was literally unable to wake up: I slept for more than 18 hours that night (and day) and had two further 12-hour power naps during the weekend. Surprisingly, the problem was not English as a second language itself (although note-taking was difficult at first), but the fact, that I constantly had to switch between English and Hungarian.

By being forced to use English for 6-8 hours every single day, regardless of whether I was ‟feeling it” or not, I had the opportunity to observe fluctuations, overarching tendencies, and compare how the same situations played out in English and in Hungarian. Firstly, there are days, when you can’t put together even one simple sentence, however hard you try, just because you woke up on the wrong side of the bed. The only reasonable solution is to go home, go to bed, reset yourself, and try again the next day. Secondly, I realised my Hungarian wasn’t ‟perfect” either: I can’t always react right away when I’m asked a question, sometimes I can’t understand what someone is saying and have to ask them to repeat their sentence, and on some occasions, I make mistakes or am uncertain about a suffix or certain expressions. Does this mean that I can’t speak Hungarian? Of course not… Mistakes, miscommunications, uncertainties are inherent to the nature of languages and communication. Realising this gave me confidence and made me much more comfortable with speaking foreign languages.

Day to day use: writing

From the beginning of my MA, I was told by American classmates and my academic writing instructor that my written English was nearly perfect. It was the result of reading academic texts since 2011 and it didn’t come as easily as you might imagine. I used László Országh’s 4-volume English-Hungarian and Hungarian-English dictionary, I would frequently google phrases and expressions in quotation marks to make sure they were correct. Every time I sat down to write an assignment, the first two tabs I opened in my browser were and Google Translate. It’s needless to say, I still made stupid mistakes like writing ‟proceeding backwards”.

Being a historian, I was already familiar with the nuances of describing the past, but I still struggle with future tenses. As I had to write multiple essays every week, I got used to the need to be creative and flexible with sentence construction and parts of speech, since Indo-European logic widely differs from ours.

After I graduated at CEU and continued my MA in History at ELTE, I had to get back into the habit of using academic Hungarian. Turns out, you can actually forget complete registers of your own first language, if you don’t practice them at all for a year. My supervisor, a perfectionist, would frequently tease me for clunky, awkward phrasing and anglicisms, and it took a whole MA thesis worth of practice to get more or less back into the flow.

Complications: French

The biggest price I paid for my proficiency in English was the entirety of my written and spoken French. I planned to write my second MA thesis in French, but it ended in a spectacular failure.

As I mentioned, I started learning French in high school. Without blaming anyone or going into too much detail, I would say those four years proved to be nearly useless in practice. I still can recite old mnemonics about Hungarian cuisine and Louis XVI, but I freak out every time I have to engage in small talk, explain my research, or discuss basic topics like daily life, hobbies, or societal issues.

I had my first encounter with academic French in the second semester of my BA, in two courses held by my future supervisor. One of my assignments was to present a chapter from Raymond Cazelles’ La société politique et la crise de la royauté sous Philippe de Valois. It took me one whole month to decipher this 30-page-long excerpt. It was the other class where I first met Ademar of Chabannes, and later, at the encouragement of my supervisor, I continued working on 11th-century Aquitaine. However, my academic French remained more or less passive until 2019, when I applied for a cotutelle scholarship funded by the French government.

When practicing French, I tried to follow the outline of my English academic writing course, e. g. looking up synonyms for reporting verbs and words I frequently use in my research. I read materials published by the Académie française to eliminate small but frequent errors, that would make an academic text sloppy, and, most importantly, anglicisms. As Hungarian is an agglutinative language, I had my fair share of struggles with prepositions in all four Indo-European languages I had learnt, and, because I used English almost exclusively for an entire year, the three other sets of prepositions I had memorised simply jumbled up in my brain.

As I was trying to relearn proper French and maintain the level of my English at the same time, the two languages ended up permanently mixed in my head. I’m not talking about dumb mistakes like ‟plusieurs times” and ‟Île-the-France”, but the lingering doubt around articles or the appropriate past tense; questions like ‟is passé prospectif 100% legit or do I use it as an anglicism” and ‟where do adverbs and complements go”. On top of that, English and French have a plethora of false friends: you don’t adresse and definitely not *addresse a problem, but aborde it, concernant and concerning are not the same (OK, this is an easy one), and assumer doesn’t mean what you think it does. I have to double-check practically every second word to make sure it’s not my English brain playing tricks.

My biggest help, besides the updated edition of Sándor Eckhardt’s Hungarian-French dictionary, has been a software called Antidote 10. It’s a spell and grammar checker, dictionary, thesaurus, etymological dictionary with conjugation tables, lists of frequent co-occurences for every word, and everything else you would possibly need to write a sophisticated text. The spell and grammar checker also creates statistics, warns you about repetitions, and you can match the stylistic guide to the desired register of your text.

It’s possible that I don’t have a realistic picture of my own abilities and the progress I’ve made since 2017 (when I started using the language more often). My 2-month research trip in 2019 was a rather lonely experience with little small talk. I don’t speak and write in French as much as in English, and when I do speak, I tend to focus on my pronunciation, because I still have a deep-seated hatred for [ʁ]. There is no better feeling though, than being told by a French person in an academic setting, that your French is ‟outstanding” or ‟remarkable”, and it’s worth all the hassle and frustration.


Actively using three languages is exhausting. Growing up with an Indo-European language is a privilege many speakers never realise. In my experience, when I’m working in Hungarian, I’m considerably faster and less anxious. And how cool would it be, if you could read my MA thesis on the theory and practice of lay authority in 10th-11th-century Southern France, or my last paper on the settlement of Saint-Victor in Brignoles without me being forced to spend weeks translating them? In addition to this, the scariest and saddest realisation in lockdown was that I needed to spend more time actively working on my Hungarian vocabulary in order to maintain my fluency. As I have communicated more in English lately, my inner monologue has changed to mostly English as well. Sometimes I’m afraid, that I’ll end up like Salvatore in The Name of the Rose, who speaks a mix of different languages, but actually none.

Learning languages is exciting, challenging, and great fun. Sometimes you cry, sometimes you laugh, sometimes you do both at the same time, but you never get bored. I hope you can relate to that!


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1 Comment

Frédéric Lefebvre-N.
Frédéric Lefebvre-N.
Jun 17, 2021

"being told by a French person in an academic setting, that your French is „outstanding” or „remarkable”, and it’s worth all the hassle and frustration." Venant de ce·tte Français·e, c'est plus fort que de vous féliciter d'avoir sauvé le monde, la civilisation et un chaton !

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