The final week arrived as I stepped off the plane in Budapest, the big moment only days away.
Because I was surprising the founders of Drops with the fact I had learned Hungarian the last day of the trip, I didn’t want to go an entire week without using this new language I learned before the big reveal. It would put all of my progress at risk if I took a week-long break before the most important moment of the entire project!
* Is this the first post in this series that you’re reading? Follow this link to learn more about my Hungarian language challenge.
I arrived in Budapest late Sunday night and we planned on having the big project reveal at the on Friday at the end of our work week. Up until that moment arrived, I wanted to use Hungarian as much as I could while visiting the city. But there was one major catch.
I needed to do it when I was on my own. And because we spent morning until late at night together as a team, my opportunities were limited. Really limited.
But I took it as a challenge to see just how much I was willing to take advantage of them.
Immediately after arriving, my first opportunity to use Hungarian presented itself. My Airbnb had offered to send a driver to pick me up and I’d have about thirty minutes in the car with him to chat.
I got in the car and was greeted with... silence. Well, not total silence, the radio was on and the driver did say hello and confirm who I was. But the communication between him and I was in English.
We started the drive and I fidgeted in the back, working up the courage to say something in Hungarian.
Me: Excuse me, could we speak a little Hungarian?
Driver: Yes, yes.
Me: Are you from Budapest?
Driver: Yes, yes.
Me: Do you like living in Budapest?
Driver: Yes, yes.
Driver: (Asks something about me speaking Hungarian I don’t quite catch)
Me: I’ve only been studying for about two weeks.*
Driver: *In English* Okay, well I’ll speak English so that you understand.
* I said two weeks rather than two months because prior to the two weeks before the trip I had really only “dabbled” with Hungarian and didn’t start seriously studying until right before.
Admittedly, it was my fault. He assumed up until that point that I didn’t speak Hungarian and then I surprised him, so he was likely taken off guard. On top of that, I admitted to only having studied for two weeks after not fully understanding a question instead of asking him to repeat what he said.
Another stumbling block that could have derailed my project or affected my confidence, but knowing that my first attempt wasn’t ideal, I knew the best next step would be for me to try again.
Take two brought me to one of the only restaurants still open in my area after 10pm, coincidentally called… Drop. I walked in and in Hungarian asked “can I eat something?” The answer was “no, the kitchen was closed”, but I didn’t want the opportunity to go to waste, so I asked if I could stay for a drink. The answer to that question was igen (“yes”), so I sat at the bar and asked for a recommendation for a glass of Hungarian wine. White or red? Vörös (“red”), please.
I finished my glass, settled the bill in Hungarian, then headed off to bed content at my first success. And in the morning, I repeated that success when ordering a coffee on my own.
But then the real challenge started.
How would I keep practicing Hungarian when I was always with the coworkers I was trying to surprise?
At first, I did okay. At restaurants, the waiters heard me speaking English with the rest of the team, so they asked me for my order in English. But then, as we broke off into smaller groups and I began using the language around coworkers who were in on the surprise, using it in certain situations started to stick.
One night at dinner, I ordered something in Hungarian in front of Mark, but he was distracted and thankfully, didn’t hear me. And then on our team scavenger hunt, I had forgotten to switch the languages of Drops on my phone and the word lists opened up in Hungarian in front of several team members (though I don’t think they thought anything of it).
I wanted to try to be more careful, reserving my Hungarian use to when I was on my own or with the three other people in on the surprise. But then the questions started.
More than once on the trip, Daniel and Mark asked me if I had learned, was learning or planned to learn Hungarian. I had to try to dodge the questions, unable to avoid fibbing about my studies. Later, Mark admitted he thought it was strange I hadn’t learned any Hungarian in preparation for the trip, especially as the Resident Polyglot. And if I hadn’t known otherwise, I too would have thought it unusual!
Prior to languages, my background was in music. Specifically, jazz. One of the things we’re encouraged to do is explore our creativity by setting limitations. When you’re only able to use a limited set of tools, you have to think of more creative ways to use them.
The same is true for language. When you limit your approach, you give yourself the freedom to look at your learning from a new angle. To try new things and experiment with what you know and the tools you’re using to learn the language.
By limiting my learning to a tutor and Drops, I was able to do just that. My learning was focused, I had the chance to really explore and go deep with the materials I had at hand because I wasn’t spread too thin across a variety of language learning resources or methods.
What about you? What techniques do you use to get the most out of your language studies? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
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