Will my child forget Hungarian?

by Júlia Deak Sandler

Hungarian School finally met for the first time this fall for our traditional school-age programs in Hungarian for kids who speak or at least understand the language. In three groups, they met with teachers, spoke about themselves, learned poems, reviewed Hungarian spelling rules or gained a little more grammar knowledge. 

Both the teachers and I were impressed with how well these groups came together and attended to the tasks at hand. And how nicely they could read Hungarian! Our whole community can be proud of this accomplishment, from parents and grandparents to our former school directors, to those who ran our online classes last year, and even our dedicated librarians, who have brought quality, contemporary books to so many families over the past 3 years.

Still, many parents told me they wondered: Is this enough? This child understands me but does not speak. The other doesn’t want to attend Hungarian school. A third, even after a year in Hungary, suddenly switched to English at home as soon as they started kindergarten.

Here is my perspective, as a bilingual Hungarian-American, a language teacher, and the parent of a child whose grandparents and great-grandparents came to the US between 1920-1978: Bilingual language development is a lifelong process. It does not start and end before kindergarten, or die during middle school. It develops more easily for some than others, but none of us have to despair at bumps in the road. I was not really literate in Hungarian until adulthood. Now I write emails and Hírek articles in two languages with ease, and I’ve even bumbled my way through some gnarly grant paperwork from NIR. 

Many of the Hungarian-Americans I grew up with in Boston have similar stories. One family we socialized with had two boys who never spoke up in Hungarian, though both parents spoke only Hungarian at home. The younger one spent a year studying for free in the Balassi Bálint Intézet program in his early 20s, living with his Grandma in Budapest, and became fluent again, for the first time since pre-school. Another family had three boys who did speak fluently but with cringe-worthy American accents. Though they were rowdy, tough kids who had to be bribed with cash money to come to Hungarian school, two of the three of them now speak only Hungarian with their own kids and are raising them bilingually. I know their father read Hungarian novels aloud to them all every night, well into their teenage years, and now they read to their kids in Hungarian even when the book was printed in English (with the help of Hungarian translations penciled in by Grandma).

As kids grow up, they pass through predictable phases – starting off very attached to their parents and caregivers, then exercising resistance as they develop some independence, then circling back. They usually identify more with their peer groups in middle and high school but come back to questions about their own identity and heredity in late adolescence and early adulthood. We have many 20-somethings in our adult Hungarian classes, and most of them have a Hungarian parent or grandparent. 

Each family must do what works for them, whether that is setting rules about language use at home, bringing in Hungarian caregivers or online tutors, traveling to visit family, playing with Duolingo, singing or reading aloud every night before bed. Several HAAW families have moved back to Hungary temporarily so that the children could do a year of school there, and sending them to summer camp is even more common. These may seem like drastic steps, but if a child’s language skill recedes to where they cannot understand much anymore, that kind of immersion may be the only shortcut to fluency left. In later years, it is possible to learn through textbooks, especially for those who have a knack for language learning, but it takes real motivation and dedication due to the complexity of Hungarian for beginners.

Although a child may stop responding in Hungarian, we should keep using it as long as they understand, and find fun ways to keep it prominent in our family culture. The nice thing about Hungarian school or any HAAW activity or event, is that it gives kids a chance to interact with less familiar adults whom they know only as Hungarian speakers. When they encounter a whole Hungarian community, they are more likely to put their skills to use to fit in there, at least with the adults. 

When there are close family members who cannot express themselves completely comfortably in English, I think it is worth going to great lengths to keep up the children’s Hungarian. Even in my situation where my mother speaks excellent English but only moved here in her 30s, I’m very glad we can converse bilingually. 

If that’s not the case, maybe total fluency is not a goal worth bickering over. I think it’s wonderful that our Scout troop keeps itself accessible to those with limited Hungarian, because it allows 2nd and 3rd generation kids to still learn about their history and culture, savor choice bits of the language, and develop a strong sense of who they are and where they came from. In Hungarian school too, kids can participate in Mikulás Nap and Húsvéti Locsolás.

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