Learning Hungarian with Duolingo

A friend sent me an column by Peter Derk about New Year’s writing resolutions, and what to do when you fall of the horse. I enjoyed the article and the advice. Maybe because my resolutions are pretty on track for the year, the main takeaway I had from the column was, “Duolingo, huh?”

Duolingo is a site that teaches you another language, and encourages you to do a little every day, building streaks and earning a site currency called lingots. I scrolled through their impressive list of languages (it includes Welsh, Swahili, and High Valyrian) and decided I was going to try Hungarian.

As some can guess from my last name, about half my family is from Hungary. My mom never taught us to speak the language beyond counting and a few phrases. As I’ve grown up, I’d made a few half-hearted attempts to learn on my own. Mostly, they’ve fizzled. Why would I try again?

Because, aside from my family connection, there is something about Hungarian that is undeniably exotic and awesome. It’s a Finno-Ugric language, related to none of the languages that surround it geographically. I like that I have some familiarity in a tongue that baffles my polyglot Serbian friend. And while it looks complicated, the pronunciation is regular and nouns don’t have gender. I seem to remember reading somewhere that the Grimm brothers wanted Hungarian to be the universal language, but Google isn’t backing me up, so don’t quote me.

I signed up at Duolingo and tried to test out of some levels. It didn’t go well. Granted, my sense of my own Hungarian competence is inflated. But at least some of it is that the program (which is in beta) conflicts with some of the things I already knew. They asked me to type: Where is the car? Easy. Dad used to say it every time we left Stop & Shop: Hol van a kocsi? But no, it’s supposed to be Hol van az autó? OK, then. Sometimes I get tripped up on word order. But Hungarian is a synthetic language, and word order doesn’t matter so much. Duolingo doesn’t always agree.

Last weekend I blitzed through some levels by cheating wildly: I was on my mom’s computer with her at my elbow. She got some stuff wrong, too, but we didn’t stop playing.

I’ve been at this for five whole days now, almost a third as long as I tried to teach myself Latin. So I wouldn’t call it a success yet. But at least it’s fun, and if I use it as a reward for hitting my daily word count, then it’s all good.

A viszontlátásra!

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