Long running Hungarian program at UC Berkeley on the brink of discontinuation

According to US Census figures about 1.5 million US citizens have Hungarian ancestry and only 10% of them, only about 150 thousand people, are familiar with the Hungarian language.

Most speak “kitchen Hungarian” and have problems with reading and writing. Of course, writing a grammatically correct letter or essay in Hungarian is a challenge; few non-native speaker can master the intricacies of the language. My estimate is that about 50 thousand, mostly new immigrants, are fully literate in Hungarian. Not surprisingly no Hungarian publishing house or national newspaper has succeeded in the US market; the audience is too small to make it profitable.

Hungarian President János Áder promotes an unrealistic agenda when on his visit he encouraged Americans of Hungarian origin to speak Hungarian at home. (See Mr. Áder’s speech here.) It won’t happen. I was surprised that even über-nationalistic paper, Magyar Hírlap started to publish news in English; they understood that to be heard in the world media must use English.

Few universities offer Hungarian language programs in the US, one of the last one is the University of California at Berkeley.

The following note is from Ms. Éva Soós Szőke who is a Lecturer in Hungarian at the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at that university. Don’t be surprised, organizationally Hungarian language education is part of Slavic Language Department at UC Berkeley!

“Dear All,

Although the UC Berkeley Hungarian program is one of the longest running in the US, because of the low enrollment numbers, it is on the brink of discontinuation. Our department will start a discussion about whether to keep offering Hungarian in light of the low enrollment. Currently, we have a total of four students registered in the introductory and reading classes. The university discontinued the Romanian program when they had five students. The Fall semester enrollment statistics will weigh heavily in the university’s decision whether to keep offering Hungarian. It is not too late to register for our courses, and if you know current UC Berkeley students, please let them know that this might be the last chance to study Hungarian language and culture at Berkeley. Unfortunately, in this situation the increased concurrent enrollment of outside students won’t help.

It is not too late to register, and I always work closely with students to accommodate their individual learning needs.”

University of California at Berkeley The Campanile (University Bell Tower) overlooking San Francisco Bay.

University of California at Berkeley The Campanile (University Bell Tower) overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Those of us who speak Hungarian cherish and love the language. But let’s be honest, the future of our mother tongue is bleak in North-America. Most new Hungarian immigrants already speak some English when they arrive, and they assimilate at record speed. Few families speak Hungarian at home, keyboard compatibility issues and the complexity of the language provide additional obstacles.

In my view, Hungarian culture and literature would be best served if more Hungarian authors would be translated to English. There will always be a few who want to learn Hungarian, but promoting Hungarian language education in the US is a futile effort. Put more energy into good translations of Hungarian literature! The best contemporary Hungarian writers already seek out outstanding English translators, and even recent Booker prize winning author László Krasznahorkai would agree with me, he owes a lot to his brilliant English translator, George Szirtes.

György Lázár

One Comment

  1. Comprehensive overview by Hungarian-born British poet and translator, George Szirtes


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