By Elisabeth George |

In an age where the internet makes connecting between cultures and continents widely accessible, language is spreading farther, faster and more easily than ever before. I’ve heard several stories of people learning English by watching “Friends” on Netflix or Spanish by watching telenovelas.

Communication is wildly important, and language is one of the main ways that we do that. It’s part of what makes us human, what separates us from other animals on the planet. But what do we do when we can’t speak the same language?

Having grown up abroad, I have been used to slipping throughout western Europe and even Northern Africa with my Portuguese and mediocre French. Since romantic languages have similar roots, the switch from one language to another, such as Spanish, is fairly easy. But my experience with Czech was completely different. I no longer had any context for the language I was attempting to decipher. Like asking someone with a Spanish background to read Korean, the mix of consonants and vowels on signs and menus have been frustratingly devoid of meaning to me.

When we arrived in Budapest, I wanted things to be different than my frustrating experience with the Czech language in Prague. I was tired of awkwardly smiling at people because I couldn’t say anything they would understand. I can’t always rely on my English being understood, although Hungarians now study English in school, most people in the older generations do not speak it. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t even say “thank-you” to our wait-staff or “excuse-me” to the person I needed to get by on the tram. 

Of all the culture shocks I had prepared for, stairway etiquette, tipping and culinary differences, I overlooked language because I’d never had to really think about it before. 

My solution to the dilemma was to learn some Hungarian phrases on a language app on my phone, along with carrying a list of common words I needed on a notepad in my purse. Although I found the language difficult to pick up, people were much more patient with me than I had expected. But more importantly, they appreciated my effort. 

Our first week in Budapest, I ate at a restaurant with four other girls from our Baylor group. While the waitress expressed the usual European indifference toward us as we sat down and ordered drinks, she seemed to light up when we all thanked her in Hungarian. That simple word made all the difference. For the rest of the meal she smiled and seemed more partial to us than she had when we’d arrived.

While you can get by in Budapest without knowledge of the native language, it means a lot to people when you meet them halfway. Hungarians have a long history to be proud of and an independence they fought hard to attain, and at points regain.  

Their history begins in 896 A.D., nearly 900 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Between the Ottoman invasion, Turkish occupation, Habsburg (Austrian) rule, and the reduction of the country to a third of its former size, respect for Hungary’s language and culture is warranted.

I have found that as a foreigner, taking a second of my day to speak to a Hungarian in their native tongue is a meaningful gesture. Even though Hungary may be smaller and less prosperous compared to other European countries, I am saying their culture and language are important, which means a lot.