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Language Education in Hungary at the State Level Failing its Customers

The headline to a recent article on the website of a leading Hungarian political think tank read: “ … 58% of the Hungarians do not speak any foreight language at all.” (sic)

The article has since been taken down, and I’ll save the blushes of an oft-quoted analyst by not naming names. In any case, native English writers are not immune from typos, spelling errors and grammar glitches – yours truly included.

But as Klemens Wersonig observes (see interview on page ten), despite improving since 1990, foreign language skills in Hungary are “probably the lowest in the region”.

The Austrian-born headhunter told the Budapest Business Journal: “Here, language teaching is very much grammar based, rarely is it speaking. So, often, we have people with quite high skills in reading and understanding, but they cannot communicate.” Here, he was referring to graduate level: below that, he agreed standards are “appalling”.

Wersonig is in a good position to judge: with offices across the region, he finds executive recruits from Szczecin to Sofia and much in between. Recently, because of an acute shortage in Vienna, he’s been targeting German speaking Slovaks with IT skills. The successful candidates, graduates with a year or two’s experience, can walk into a job with a minimum monthly salary of EUR 4,000.

Official statistical data gives credence to the anecdotal evidence: in the Eurostat “Quality of Life” report of 2015, 62% of Hungarians admitted to not knowing another language, the second worse figure behind Ireland in the countries studied (which excluded the United Kingdom). In Estonia, belonging to a similar language group, the figure was a mere 14%.

That report drew on data from 2011, but the situation has changed little. In fact, it has possibly got worse. According to the Education Office, middle-level passes in English language have tumbled from some 89,500 in 2010 to 67,100 in 2017 – a 25% drop. The slump in German language passes at the same level was even more dramatic – at near 40%.

Shocked into Action

In 2014, the government was shocked into action: some 50,000 former students were in a kind of educational no-man’s land, unable to officially graduate because they lacked a “B2” (the equivalent of the middle-level) foreign language qualification needed after 2006 to qualify for a first university degree in any subject.

The authorities launched the so-called “diplomamentő” program, a subsidized language teaching project designed to clear this backlog. According to press reports last summer, some 10,250 such former students had taken the course.

Bizarrely – given the aim of the program – the rules meant teachers had to hold a Hungarian language teaching qualification, which excluded the vast majority of non-Magyar teachers. Despite this quirky job-protection scheme, the results – at least on paper – were excellent: the pass rate was 96%.

This is a start, but hardly a panacea for a problem set to get worse. From 2020, new regulations mandate that students need at least one “B2” level foreign language qualification to enroll on an undergraduate course. Educational experts have been warning for at least two years that many schools, especially in more deprived areas of the country, simply do not have enough skilled teachers to prepare would-be students for the new enrolment conditions.

Language education in Hungary today at the state level is failing its customers – the students themselves and employers who pay taxes in order to hire staff capable of competing in the modern world. Schemes like diplomamentő would thus appear to have considerable life in them yet.

Potential teachers can find details at: ofa.hu/hu/diplomamento

It is available, of course, in Hungarian only.