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‘).


A Brief Insight: Teaching English in Budapest

“The mere fact that you’re a native English speaker is enough.” Heather Keagan has six months to complete two years of TEFL, or teaching English as a foreign language, at which point she will be eligible to go on to receive DELTA training, attaining a diploma in English language teaching to adults. At 25, she’s taught in Indonesia for a year, afterward relocating to Budapest, Hungary, where she works for several of the city’s English schools and takes on private students as well. With her bubbly personality, springy brown curls of hair, and tremulous yet insuppressible laugh, Heather says teaching English in Budapest, while not her ultimate dream career or city, has been a worthwhile pursuit, giving her the chance to travel and experience an altogether unique lifestyle.

Given her ambitions for a chance to excel in the ambivalent world of TEFL, Heather is unlike many of her colleagues, including Lachland, a thirty-some-year-old Australian who has been teaching for two years, during which time he had relocated to Korea. Just several weeks into the International House (IH) program in Budapest, Lachland sees teaching as “definitely just a side job.” This sentiment seems to pervade the teacher stock at IH and other schools such as Manhattan Nyelvstúdió, where turnover rates of teachers can be high due to, among other things, the lack of commitment to the profession.

“It’s rewarding,” says Luca, a former general manager at a hair salon for seven years in the UK. Now a year into teaching English with IH, she – in stark contrast to many other CELTA-certifieds – sees English as a serious career. During summer months, Luca says she teaches roughly 30 to 40 classes; once fall arrives, the full-time teachers return, and her class load drops. Still, Luca explains that it’s not only the number of classes, fairly low pay, and odd hours that add hardship to this position but the top line of her CV as well. As a non-native English speaker (she grew up in Buda), she is more likely to have her resume buried beneath the other, more desired native English speakers. Even so, she prefers her title remain unchanged despite the disadvantage. “I don’t want to be Lucy,” she says, wrinkling her nose.

English teachers taking a break at International House, which employs over 50 part-time (freelance) and 9 full-time staff

While Luca says she seldom uses Hungarian to explain the more difficult English grammar, preferring to avoid falling back on this convenience, Heather, who knows only enough Hungarian to get by, admits that it’s a bit daunting in the classroom when students begin to chatter and titter in their own language. Echoing these worries is Carly, 22, who has only recently begun teaching English here but uses her minimal knowledge of the language to her advantage.  “I don’t speak Hungarian but in class we only speak English,” she says. “I’ve taken French and Hebrew for years in school and my teachers never spoke any English to us so I think it’s a good method for learning.”

Carly spreads herself over four different language schools and teaches business English at an OTP bank branch in Budapest while taking on private clients in the meantime. Similar to Luca, Carly says the hours can be sporadic – mixed with a lot of free time – as well as the pay. “Since I’m new to teaching I get paid at a lower rate, but I make about 2,600 HUF [approximately 9 euros] per class, which lasts about 45 minutes,” she explains. “I charge a little lower for private tutoring. You get paid more working at an actual public or private school with contracts but I’m not sure, as I only applied to language schools.” Given the low pay and the challenge of attaining a visa for a longer stay in Hungary, Carly has an uncertain future in the world of teaching English abroad, much like the others who scrape by on so little in Budapest.

Is such a profession sustainable? Although as an EU citizen, Heather does not have the extra worry of going through the rigmarole of the immigration process, she seems to be willing to see where it takes her.