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Learn Hungarian

Sooner or later in your Hungarian language-learning journey, someone will tell you lassan járj, tovább érsz. Walk slowly. You’ll go further.

Explore Hungarian language grammar, resources, and tips with our comprehensive self-study guide for beginners. Is Hungarian hard to learn? Find answers here.

They’re not wrong: learning Hungarian isn’t something to be rushed but rather enjoyed. Don’t focus on how long it takes but on the experiences that it opens the door to: understanding the pun-based jokes that Hungarians love to make, watching heart-wrenching undubbed films, drinking pálinka with your newfound Hungarian friends…

Of course, even though you’re happy to enjoy the process, it helps to start out with the best resources for learning Hungarian, from languages courses and apps to movies and vloggers. So keep reading as we look at the language-learning tools available for you, as well as how to create an effective Hungarian study plan.

About the Hungarian Language

Today, there are roughly 13 million native Hungarian speakers. Most of these live in Hungary, but you’ll also find Hungarian-speaking communities in neighboring countries such as Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia, as well as in the US, Canada, Israel, and other countries.

Some of these communities never actually migrated from Hungary: the nation’s borders were redrawn after World War I, meaning that up to two-thirds of the population found themselves living in a different country overnight. Other Hungarians, however, left the country fleeing Nazis, Communism, or the conflict resulting from the Hungarian Uprising.

And of course, others left out of travel lust, interest in different countries, to marry or live with their partner, pursue a career, or simply because of elvágyódás – the desire to be somewhere else.

As borders have changed and cultures have influenced each other, Hungarian has grown to include German, English, Slavic, French, Italian, and Turkish loan words.

Yet there’s no chance of mistaking Hungarian for a neighboring language.

Why Is Hungarian So Different From Most European Languages?

If you were to look at a map of Europe and try to guess the Hungarian language family, you might opt for Slavic, Germanic, or Romance. After all, all the surrounding countries fit into one of these three groups.

Yet Hungarian isn’t an Indo-European language at all. It’s Uralic: a family made of Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Sami/Lapp, and several indigenous languages spoken in Northern Russia. And even then, Finnish and Estonian have far more in common with each other than they do with Hungarian.

The Hungarian language is unique in Central Europe. But why?

To answer that, we need to go back to the ninth century CE. At this point in time, Magyar tribes migrated from the Ural mountains, in what is today central Russia, and conquered the Carpathian basin, where modern-day Hungary sits (along with parts of some neighboring countries).

These tribes brought their language and culture with them. To this day, Hungarians call their language Magyar.

It’s unclear why these tribes decided to migrate the 3,000 or so kilometers to their new land. But regardless of why it happened, in 895 CE, the principality of Hungary was established. And just over a century later, in 1,000 CE, Stephen I became the first king of Hungary.

Is Hungarian Hard to Learn?

Hungarian has a reputation as a difficult language for English speakers to pick up. We disagree: we think it’s just different.

And once you get your head around some of the differences, you’ll find it’s a surprisingly accessible and fascinating language.

One of the biggest arguments for Hungarian’s difficulty is that it has over 20 cases. However, these aren’t cases like you might come across in German, where the word changes based on its grammatical function (direct object, indirect object, etc).

Instead, these cases are suffixes that take the role of prepositions. For example:

  • Öt means “five”. Ötkor means “at five.”
  • Három means “three.” Háromkor means “at three.”
  • A ház means “the house.” A házból means “from the house,” as in “I come from the house.” A házhoz means “to the house,” as in “I go to the house.”

Of course, you still have to learn all of them – but that’s no different from learning prepositions in English, Spanish, or German.

And this also has its benefits. The way suffixes are added to words in Hungarian, replacing prepositions and other grammatical functions, make it something called an agglutinative language. And agglutinative languages tend to be fairly logical with few irregular verbs.

In fact, Hungarian only has 23 irregular verbs. Compare that to English, which has at least 638 irregular verbs, and Hungarian starts to look pretty easy.

There are also fewer verb tenses in Hungarian, although you’ll have to get a grip on definite and indefinite conjugation. If the sentence has no object, an indefinite object, or the object is in first or second person (I’d like to read/I’d like to read a book/I’d like to read something/I’d like to read you a book), you should use the indefinite conjugation. But if it’s a definite object or a third-person object (I’d like to read that book/I’d like to read the book/I’d like to read him a book), then you would use the definite conjugation.

The word order can also confuse Hungarian language learners since it’s far more flexible than in English. You might even read that you can structure a Hungarian sentence in any order you like – but that’s not entirely true.

Just like in English, a neutral sentence has a core structure of subject-verb-object (“I ate the apple”). However, you can adjust this structure to emphasize the information that you can consider most important. This is tricky to pick up, with even intermediate and advanced learners making mistakes at times.

On the other hand, like in English, there is no grammatical gender. While you can say “she” as in “she drank a cup of tea,” neither the cup nor the tea will be gendered.

The pronunciation can be challenging for English speakers since some of the sounds don’t exist in the English language. Plus, slight differences in vowel sounds can change a word’s meaning. However, the spelling is phonetic and there aren’t any diphthongs.

In fact, writing in Hungarian is pretty easy. It uses an extended Latin alphabet with 44 characters in total. Most of these additional letters are due to the accented vowels, also known as diacritics (á, é, í, ó, ö, ő, ú, ü, and ű). The rest are digraphs and a trigraph, where multiple letters are combined to represent a single letter with its own corresponding sound: cs, gy, ty, dzs, and so on.

So, how difficult is Hungarian? Well, the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) considers it a category IV language, making it easier than Japanese and Arabic; harder than Malaysian, German, and Portuguese; and roughly as difficult as most other Eastern and Central European languages.

As for us, we think that if you start learning Hungarian believing it’s impossible, you’ll always find it challenging. But if you go in with an open mind and a willingness to learn a different grammar system, you might be surprised by how quickly you pick it up.

How to Learn Hungarian

Sometimes, the hardest thing about learning a language is finding the right study methods for you. So, let’s take a look at what and how to study.

If you’re a complete beginner, you might want to spend some time learning the slightly tricky Hungarian pronunciation. It can be a dry and boring way to start, but it will save you time later on if you immediately understand how to pronounce words. We’ve listed some great options for practicing your pronunciation in the resources section of this guide.

You’ll probably want to pick from a selection of our resources to start learning basic vocabulary and phrases, too. To begin with, you might find yourself focusing solely on memorization techniques such as flashcards.

However, when you get to the stage where you can write and understand basic sentences, you’ll have a wealth of study options available to you. Keeping a journal will let you practice grammar and vocabulary. Listening to the news, music, or podcasts will help you pick up natural phrasing as well as introduce you to different accents and dialects. Reading will expand your vocabulary. And of course, finding a language exchange partner will test your comprehension and output.

To make sure you don’t neglect a particular aspect of your studies, you might want to create a study plan. These can keep you on track and motivated, but remember that language studies aren’t one-size-fits-all. Make sure it’s a personalized Hungarian study plan based on your goals and learning style.

Start by outlining what you want to achieve: are you hoping to move to Hungary? Spend a week there? Speak Hungarian with a partner or friend? Use Hungarian for work? Keep in touch with an exchange student after they’ve left? Study Hungarian history? Watch films? Listen to music or podcasts? Read novels?

Next, work out what you’ll need in order to do that. Learning a language can be divided into areas such as reading, writing, speaking, listening, vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. You can also specialize in different types of vocabulary based on your aims. Think about the situations in which you’ll want to use Hungarian and what you might discuss.

Of course, this isn’t to say that if you want to keep in touch with a friend over social media, you should only practice reading, writing, colloquial vocabulary, and grammar – a little bit of balance in your language learning will not only help you pick things up quicker but also help you avoid a situation where you’ve been studying Hungarian for a year but panic when your friend tries to ring you.

What this does mean, however, is that you can create a study plan that gives a little extra time to writing and vocabulary – your core skill sets.

Alternatively, if you know you’ll get lots of practice through writing to your friend and you want to become a well-rounded Hungarian speaker, you might decide to work a little less on writing and spend that extra time on listening and speaking instead.

Take your learning preferences and lifestyle into account, too. If you know you have a short attention span when reading, don’t aim to practice reading with novels – opt for short stories, blog posts, or newspaper articles instead. Or, if your attention tends to fade when listening to podcasts, practice your listening through YouTube videos instead.

How much spare time do you have? It’s better to study frequently but for less time than less often but for longer periods. Try to get in the habit of doing something in Hungarian every day, or at least five days a week, so that you can more easily switch languages. If you go too long between study sessions, it’ll be harder to start thinking in Hungarian.

Celebrate small victories to keep yourself motivated. If you get frustrated by your progress, try returning to something you did just a few months ago, such as a particular TV show or a newspaper article. You’ll be surprised by how much you’ve improved, even though you don’t notice it on a daily basis.

And most importantly of all, remember that even if you struggle, that’s okay. You might speak better Hungarian some days than others, you might forget words you thought you’d memorized, and you might feel like you’ll never master the pronunciation of gy – but as long as you’re practicing regularly, you’ll get there.

As they say in Hungary, sok kicsi sokra megy. Small things add up.

How to Learn Hungarian Online

You can learn Hungarian online using online or app courses and a huge array of supplementary resources like podcasts, TV shows, and even free downloadable books. You can find many great online resources for learning Hungarian in this article, including HungarianPod101 for podcast-style lessons and Duolingo for gamified beginner-friendly lessons.

The wonderful thing about learning a language today is that you have all the resources you need at the click of a mouse! You can even sign up for online tutoring if you work best with more accountability and personal attention.

What’s the Best Way to Learn Hungarian?

The best way to learn Hungarian is to start today! Pick out a free resource from the many provided in this article and commit to at least twenty minutes a day for the first couple of weeks. You will surprise yourself with how much you can learn in a short time!

After that, sit down and map out a plan for study for yourself. If you can afford a tutor or even a trip to Hungary, go for it! If not, use an app-based course or even a textbook to provide structure for your study, and add in as many movies, podcasts, and YouTube lessons as you have time for as well.

What’s the Easiest Way to Learn Hungarian?

The easiest way for most people to learn Hungarian is to start with a comprehensive course that walks you through each component of the language. These days, you have tons of options to choose from–you could use an app like Pimsleur, an in-person course offered by an online tutor, or even work your way through a textbook one chapter at a time.

Even if you plan to move to Budapest, you should study the structure of the language besides immersing yourself in it in real life. This will help you learn to communicate more quickly in the long run.

How to Learn Hungarian Fast

While there is no perfect shortcut to install Hungarian in your brain, you can speed up your learning process in two ways. First, you can meet someone who speaks Hungarian and ask if you can practice with them regularly (or, if you can afford it, travel to Hungary and stay for a while!). 

Second, you can set a firm study schedule for yourself and stick to it, committing to daily study and practice time. This sounds much less exciting but is the only surefire way to learn a language more efficiently.

How to Speak Hungarian

Hungarian does contain sounds that English does not, so learning to speak Hungarian means training your ear to recognize those sounds, and your mouth to speak them. It is a good idea to learn how to pronounce each letter in the Hungarian alphabet before you dive into a deeper study.

After that, try to spend as much time as possible listening to native Hungarian speakers. Then, before you progress too far in your study, force yourself to start speaking Hungarian out loud, If you feel shy, do this in the privacy of your own bathroom in front of a mirror at first! Then find an online conversation partner who will offer helpful feedback without judgment.

Additional Resources for Learning Hungarian

You can never go wrong with adding a few more Hungarian resources as you progress. Language textbooks, literature, news, and music are all great ways to hone your Hungarian language skills.

Hungarian Textbooks and Graded Readers

The MagyarOK series will take you from A1 to B2, and there are supplementary videos on their website. Download additional worksheets here to further cement your studies.

Colloquial Hungarian is described as suitable for complete beginners, but most learners find it a little more challenging than other beginners’ textbooks. Despite that, the explanations are exceptionally clear.

Hungarian: An Essential Grammar is a language learner’s favorite, praised for being both easy to understand and comprehensive. Hungarian Verbs & Essentials of Grammar is also a popular option. Since they both focus on grammar, you might want to take a quick look at them in a bookshop to see which will work best for you.

While dated, you can find graded readers from the US Foreign Services Institute here, along with audio recordings for them. The first link takes a while to load but does work. Alternatively, if you don’t like reading online, you can purchase the text.

Hungarian Fiction Books

In Hungary, literature has often been a form of protest – one that has at times been censored and harshly punished. In the 1950s, many writers were imprisoned.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising: Hungary’s recent history is complex, at times tragic, and key to understanding the country’s politics today. With two world wars, multiple dictators from Hitler through to Stalin, Jewish and Roma genocides, the fall of an empire, the splitting of a country, and a relatively late start for democracy in the early ‘90s, twentieth-century Hungarian writers had a lot of material to work with.

Ferenc Molnár’s A Pál utcai fiúk is a much-loved children’s classic that pre-dates the twentieth-century conflict, having been published in 1906. Even so, it explores many of the relevant themes: tribalism, patriotism, and the violence that can result from this. Intermediate-level readers could find this an accessible introduction to Hungarian fiction.

József Lengyel’s powerful stories are influenced by his first-hand experience of Soviet labor camps, having spent 18 years in them. Don’t expect him to be neutral: even if it weren’t for his inhumane treatment at the hands of the state, he was a founding member of the Hungarian Communist Party.

Nobel Prize-winner Imre Kertész’ Sorstalanság is a semi-autobiographical story about a young boy taken to Auschwitz – much to his confusion. While he’s of Jewish descent, he doesn’t consider himself Jewish. It’s a haunting novel that can be read alone or as part of a trilogy.

Shoes on the Danube Bank: a memorial in central Budapest that remembers the 20,000 Jews who were shot on the banks of the Danube from December 1944 to January 1945.

There’s more to Hungarian literature, however, than twentieth-century genocide. Péter Esterházy’s prize-winning Semmi művészet explores mother-son dynamics through the lens of soccer but divides readers’ opinions thanks to its playful, postmodern style.

Magda Sazbó’s highly praised Az ajtó explores a woman’s relationship with her housekeeper. Although it sounds light, be warned: this is an intense and emotional read.

And if you like historical literature but would prefer something that doesn’t focus on the tragedies of the twentieth century, try Sándor Márai’s elegantly written A gyertyák csonkig égnek. It’s set in 1899 and focuses on friendship, loss, and the impact of our past.

Dictionaries and Conjugators

Although Hungarian spelling is phonetic, if you ever have doubts about how a word is pronounced, you can look it up with Forvo, the pronunciation dictionary with more than 100,000 Hungarian entries.

As for bilingual English-Hungarian dictionaries, you have plenty of options. Freedict and Webforditas are reliable choices. Sztaki is another popular one. Bear in mind, however, that this one’s a community-based dictionary so inaccuracies might slip in. And although it also contains audio pronunciation, some users complain about the text-to-speech software.

Cooljugator and Hungarian Verb Conjugator will both conjugate Hungarian verbs for you. Combine them with the Word Suffix Colorizer (which you can view in action here) to help you recognize verb roots.

Hungarian News and Music

Listening to music can help you expand your vocabulary and pick up common phrasing – just make sure a phrase isn’t poetic license before you decide to use it in conversation!

You’ll soon find that Hungarian music is often folk-influenced – but there are exceptions. Ghymes is a popular folk band, while NOX swings between folk-rock and folk-pop. However, Punnany Massif leans more toward hip-hop and pop.

Péterfy Bori & Love Band is a popular group with a female lead singer, while Caramel is a male vocalist who’s had multiple albums go to number one.

If none of these artists are to your tastes, try playlists like this one to find the singers and bands that you like.

Hungarian news sites such as Index, Origo, !!444!!!, and HVG can help you practice your reading in manageable chunks, as well as give you insight into Hungarian politics and culture.

You can also use TypeIt or Lexilogos to type in Hungarian without changing your keyboard, which can be useful for social media and emails.

From hard-hitting novels through to language exchanges and movies, you’ll find there’s no shortage of opportunities to use Hungarian. So, what are you waiting for? Create your study plan, select your resources, and start practicing.

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