A Brief Insight: Fish out of Water

2012-09-01 15.30.26Language, as it is often said, is a river; it ebbs and flows. There are those who would like to dam it, to slow the tide and tame the barbaric turbulence of slang, colloquialisms, and turned phrases, which often seems only to increase and quicken, rather paradoxically, the diversity and creation of otherspeak that spawns as a result downriver. In opposition to the prescriptivists, the descriptivists would rather the river flow naturally, allowing language to take its course, no matter how muddy and overflowed it becomes. I wade somewhere in the middle of this current, and my teaching experience here in Budapest has involved a bit of white water navigation as well as a familiar and rather dull paddling of the canoe through placid waters. While, or whilst, winding my way through the myriad estuaries, my only talent – being a native English speaker – has been tested in my use of the language and how to guide others through the mire.

English+mother+fucker+do+you+speak+it+.+silly+yoda+he_f9ed4c_3718238Common in nearly every initial class, be it in a business contracted by the two schools I now work for (yet not employed by) or private individuals who have sought my tutelage through the internet classifieds, is the goal of perfection. “I want to sound like a native speaker”. “I would like to not have an accent.” “I want to be understood perfectly.” It’s unusual for me to hear this and, of course, absurdly impossible to achieve in the short amount of time in which they would like to reach this goal (which puts tremendous pressure on me as well). It’s also a shame to hear that a student would strive to purge themselves of their natural accent in order to move up in the ranks of the business world while shedding their linguistic endemism.

True, I’m not applying for a job here in Budapest or do not intend to relocate here permanently, but simply being able to hold a fluid conversation would be a reasonable and attainable goal. Accent-wise, I find it hard to believe I would ever reach native status, and I’m sure I’m easily identifiable as a Westerner when attempting to speak the local lingo to native Hungarians. Perfection is not an option, and I wouldn’t want it to be; it would suck out all the fun in learning a language. Nevertheless, my students’ efforts in achieving their lofty aims deserves tremendous respect, and the demands for lesson material I must prepare weekly vary widely from one to the other.

Carol: "You're white. You're completely white."Larry: "I know. All the blood rushed to my brother."

Carol: “You’re white. You’re completely white.”
Larry: “I know. All the blood rushed to my brother.”

One particular student, a man in his 40s from Székesfehérvár, a city southwest of the capital, spends his hour and a half with me once or twice a week on the second floor of Burger King, where we delve into the 30-plus-pages of idioms he has fastidiously recorded from watching episodes of Seinfeld or unusual choices for light and easy reading (think Vanessa Williams or Chelsea Handler memoirs). It’s one of my more favorite lessons, given I’m not expected to prepare anything but simply correct or point out inappropriate, double-entendre idiomatic expressions. On more than one occasion, I’ve learned a new phrase (usually British) or discovered the origins of one I’ve known and not given a thought to for years (for research and guilty pleasure, I soak in episodes of Stephen Fry’s Quite Interesting after classes).

At the end of these idiom-centered, grease-smelling sessions, I’m expected to appraise the extent of perceived German-Hungarian accent and offer any further advice on perfecting his speech in preparation for his approaching relocation to New York.

saying_body_idiomsSimilarly, my other student will be making a job-related move to the States, yet demands a little more than simply mastering Jewish New Yorker slang and bimbo speak. As he has some difficulty comprehending and keeping up in conversation, I find myself speaking at length, often reaching for relevant topics that stray into personal anecdotes and wild trajectories, nonetheless. Again, I’m faced with a small window of time in which I’m expected to bring the student up to par with everyday conversational English, common phrases, and an accentless fluency.The remaining students, mostly in the range of intermediate to advanced, demand much less but still with the aim of absolute perfection in mind. These classes, on the other hand, give a little more room for creative lesson planning (a.k.a. a rousing and surprisingly helpful game of Mujupuju, about which I’ll be writing presently).

Personalities, goals, and learning methods aside, however, there is no such thing as perfection. This is particularly prevalent when the issue of regional dialect and usage arises or subjectivity regarding style and preference surfaces. Idioms themselves pose a problem for students when botched language over time  – occurring from misheard pronunciations, instances of poor handwriting, and the likes – replaces the correct, original version, such as is the case for “to get one’s goat” versus “to get one’s goad.”

riverThe idea of language as an uncontrollable feature of nature has made itself even more apparent when I was recently asked to copy edit a document detailing collective bargaining laws and regulations in the Ukraine. After an eye-drying 70-page read with inconsistently formatted tables and a mix of British and American spellings to boot, I was informed that my job was “not professional enough.” An example cited was the fact that I had failed to correct a sentence beginning with “Promising is the fact that…” Feeling that I might alter the sentence’s meaning or replace it with an even more awkward rephrasing, I left the stilted structure as it was: imperfect, but certainly not unclear in its meaning. For this, and, I’m sure, other similar syntax slip-ups, I sacrificed a few thousand forints that might’ve otherwise made quite a dent in this month’s rent. C’est la vie.

In any case, this brought me back to my job in New York prior to leaving for Budapest and at which I would never be allowed to get away with the use of “prior to” without my supervisor reproving me for failing to replace it with “before.” Understandably, the bimonthly publication held up a certain standard for style preference and, thus, consistency, but to this day, I find myself slipping into prescriptivist mindset when perusing copy or simply when about to correct a student on sentence structure and word choice.


Animation showing the transformation of the Machland floodplain 1715 – 1991.
All rights reserved © 2011 Severin Hohensinner

I must include, and remind myself, that many of my students (and those of my roommate’s, as I’m to understand) are attempting to steer and make sense of the river’s bountiful bends, much like the ancient, ever-changing Danube, in order to escape their lives here in Hungary. Employment – and, subsequently, morale, it seems – is at an all-time high, and every one of my students, not uncharacteristically, expresses much displeasure with the current government and its inaction or otherwise unproductive obsession with tedious bureaucratic law-enacting and -redacting. This is a torrent, of course, I could or would never dream to ford, so I leave you with the longest word in Hungarian at which you may marvel, on which you may contemplate, or with which you may entertain at parties, if I may be stylistically correct in suggesting such:

Megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért (‘due to your continuous pretending to be indesecratable‘).


SELTI, I Hardly Knew Ye

The news came as quite a blow to all three of us. While I had only recently begun teaching English in Budapest, my two roommates had been working with English schools such as International House and the British Council since arriving here some months ago. Now, with the closing of SELTI International, our future living and teaching in the city seemed bleaker than ever.

Freelancing as an English teacher in Budapest can become a complicated matter when dealing with Hungarian taxes; however, this is where SELTI, itself an English language-teaching school, comes in to save the day, providing a fairly straightforward business in which freelance teachers can avoid paying the exorbitant value-added tax (VAT) imposed by the government. Here’s how it works:

  1. Schedule an appointment with SELTI online, bringing with you on the day of your scheduled meeting a passport or other form of valid ID.
  2. Sign a document which affirms that you are a trainee employed by SELTI in New Zealand* (see form on the right).

    Travel to New Zealand without actually ever setting foot in New Zealand!

  3. Agree that SELTI may take 19% of your earnings for each invoice they process and that this service be provided no more than two years.
  4. After the school at which you are employed has sent a document detailing the hours logged teaching, get paid.

*This part may or may not be legal, as indirectly stated by a former SELTI representative, considering you are not, in fact, in New Zealand.

Although that 19% may seem brutal – a fairly decent base pay for an English teacher is approximately 3,000 HUF, around $15, per hour – it’s less jarring when compared with the government’s cut of 26% VAT. Whether this is a truly legal process or not (SELTI and others assure that it is, but see asterisk above) is now no longer relevant for English teachers, as the government recently decided to freeze all SELTI accounts. With no complete reassurance to its staff of New Zealand trainees of being able to pay for this and the next months’ wages, SELTI, having no other option than to close down, sent out the following apologetic letter to its clients:

I regret to inform you that due to the market downturn experienced in the language industry over the past year particularly, SELTI is no longer sustainable as a company and we are closing down. Fortunately we have settled payments owing to you to-date, but this obviously has implications for any further invoicing needed for October lessons. As the company winds down, we will be issuing cash invoices for October lessons (and any September invoices that remain unpaid). This means you will be able to collect cash directly from the language school for any lessons you taught, less the normal SELTI fees. It will mean you need to meet with someone at SELTI to collect the invoice and give it to the school upon receiving your payment.

We will explain more when it comes time for invoicing for the month, but we wanted to inform you now so if you need to make alternative arrangements from November onwards you can. As administrative staff are being let go during this time of transition, please contact accounts@selti-hungary.com with any queries you have, and remaining staff will respond to your queries there.

The news has undoubtedly soured a good number of people relying on SELTI to use the loopholes in the law to avoid the government VAT, but there remain other options: biting the bullet and going through the government directly being one, the other, becoming self-employed in the UK and performing the VATs through your own “business”. Given you don’t earn more than 12,000 pounds in the year, you are then exempt from paying the 25% UK VAT. This, of course, only applies to individuals within the European Union, leaving non-EU freelance teachers to find other routes or possibly piggyback off the self-employed EUers. All of which makes sense if you’re mad as a balloon or happen to be employed as a government tax accountant, if you’ll excuse the redundancy.

What prompted the government to finally crack down on this convoluted yet supposedly legal system? How will freelance English teachers working in such a volatile market for such low pay sustain themselves following the collapse of SELTI? Private lessons are an excellent way to pocket cash without having to report VAT (read: illegal), but just how feasible and sustainable this is remains questionable, particularly approaching the low season for English teaching in Budapest.

For now, our flat of English teachers will have to learn how to better our self-marketing skills or otherwise face a miserable winter of potato dinners and reading by candlelight.