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Coronavirus Ravages Language Education Sector

Analysis

Beatrix Olgyay

In terms of foreign language skills, Hungary scores badly. While many individuals boast excellent linguistic prowess, in the latest EU statistics (2016), only 42% of Hungarians claimed to know one or more foreign languages, making Hungary the third worst performer in the Union. Various governments over the years have sought to address this issue, invariably with little success. Naturally, the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated challenges in the sector.

In January 2020, Zoltán Siklósi was hoping for a good year. As head of the Budapest branch of the Debrecen Summer Language School, arguably the best known institution in the country for teaching Hungarian as a foreign language, the outlook was bright: then came coronavirus.

“Our Budapest school was closed basically at the start of the first wave. With almost no income and a pretty high rent, we had to give up our school premises in [prestigious] Váci utca by the end of July,” he told the Budapest Business Journal.

Siklósi declined to offer more detail on the school’s demise, except to stress that the “mother” institution in Debrecen was “alive and well.” But having founded and nurtured the Budapest operation since 2002, closure must have been a bitter blow.

While an extreme example, and in this case based on the niche Hungarian segment, the initial fall out of the COVID-19 pandemic on the language education sector was “an absolute disaster,” Zoltán Rozgonyi, chairman of Nyelvtudásért, an association of language teaching and testing professionals, tells the BBJ.

“It literally stopped, for more than two months, people going to language schools,” he says. “A surprisingly large number of schools did manage to take their courses online, but equally, a surprisingly low number of students took the offer and joined those online courses.”

At International House, a long established Budapest-based school, the number of students in each group typically halved, dropping “from an average of around 10 to between three and six due to the pandemic,” says director of studies, Lucia Iván.

Sharp Downturn

In the prosperous western city of Győr, the Oxford Language School (OLS), a leading regional player with more than 50 teachers on its books, suffered a sharp initial downturn, with vitally important company courses hit particularly badly.

“By the end of April, we had only about 40% of the former courses still running,” says school head Beatrix Olgyay.

Although OLS, as most others, was quick to launch online lessons, some clients remained loyal to the traditional classroom setting and rejected the new format. However, work picked up from June, resulting in 2020 revenues declining some 40% on 2019.

Olgyay hopes to reach 70% of the 2019 total this year, especially if the school can win military language training contracts, in which it has a track record, but, as she notes: “The rest is uncertain.”

Though non-representative, a survey by the Association of Hungarian Language Schools (NYESZE) last year backed up the experience of these individual schools. It revealed that half of respondent schools lost 30-60% of their courses, and one quarter lost even more.

Zoltán Rozgonyi

Cutting Costs

Despite the many, much publicized financial support programs launched by the government, these seemed unavailable to language schools, or they lacked the staff to look into and progress any potential aid available.

“Language schools are not good at lobbying,” says Nyelvtudásért’s Rozgonyi.

Yet, while almost all schools shed staff to cut costs, and some smaller ones closed altogether, not one member of the NYESZE folded, and the association lost just one member while gaining another, leaving it with a total of 56 schools across Hungary.

Another indicator of the pandemic’s impact is reflected in the number of candidates taking state-accredited language exams.

In 2018-2019, an average of 122,000 students sat such exams. Last year, this total fell to a little more than 85,000, equating to a 30% drop.

The cause was not, however, just the virus, as the regulations regarding university entry and degree conditions were also changed. (See story on page 11.)

“I would say about 15-20 [percentage points] of that drop was the result of the pandemic,” said Rozgonyi, “and the other 10-15 were due to regulatory changes.”

Enikő Horváth

In her own Words: Budapest Student Enikő Horváth

We Must Seize Linguistic Opportunities

Although we often hear that language learning is very important for success in life, many times we only become conscious of this when we miss an otherwise excellent opportunity due to our lack of language knowledge.

Today, language skills are ever more important because of globalization and international mobility. Therefore, in the labor market, certainly at professional levels, it is almost expected that you speak at least one foreign language fluently, if not two or three.

Although we are most receptive as children, and ideally before high-school graduation everybody has studied two languages, students in primary and secondary education are often unable to assess the value of this and, for various reasons, often neglect their studies, much to their later regret.

This may be caused by a bad experience. In my case, when I was in elementary school, my English teacher made a sarcastic remark about my pronunciation. This was not a one-off event, and for a while I became unmotivated to study English.

I felt bad about this situation, yet I also wanted to learn Spanish. With my parents’ support, I opted to move to a Spanish bilingual high-school. This proved to be a great decision, and I have since happily learned three foreign languages, namely Spanish, Portuguese and English.

Put simply, with our mother tongue little known outside the country, we Hungarians need to speak other languages to reach out internationally.

Fortunately, there are various possibilities to improve language skills later in life. One such is the Erasmus+ program for university students. Yet, I’ve seen many times that even these opportunities attract limited interest.

I fear the neglect of language-learning opportunities is influenced by our mentality. We often think negatively about the possible outcome, and then opt to not even try. (Again, I am possibly influenced by a negative school experience.)

My wish for 2021 is for Hungarian students to recognize the importance of language learning and to seize the opportunities provided.

Enikő Horváth, 22, is a third-year student of International Business at Budapest University of Technology and Economics.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of February 12, 2021.

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