The slogans are all too familiar: Hungary wants to become a start-up powerhouse with Budapest being the start-up capital of the region; Hungarians want strong and highly competitive regional champions and successful companies with a global clout. Everyone agrees with such admirable goals. But the truth is, some of the basics are still missing and chief among these is language skills. An innovative method that has steadily gained popularity in Poland in the past few years is now coming to Hungary and may help overcome these barriers.
The ability to communicate clearly and convincingly in English is a must for anyone dealing with foreign business partners and customers, or trying to raise capital from top venture capital funds to expand a fledging start-up internationally. A first impression – even if merely subconscious – is formed in just a few seconds after meeting with someone. As a result, people having difficulties expressing themselves in English – searching for words and having a hard-to-understand accent – will be perceived as less capable than self-confident communicators with a good command of English.
This may all sound trivial but still, Hungary is one of the laggards in foreign language skills not just in Europe as a whole but in the Central and Eastern Europe region as well. The latest (2012) Eurobarometer survey showed that merely one in five Hungarians is able to have a conversation in English with 40% of those prepared for the most basic situations only. Meanwhile, just 12% of the population is able to understand English language news on television or from a newspaper article. As a comparison, every other country that joined the EU in 2004 has a higher share of people speaking and understanding English, ranging from Bulgaria’s modest 25% to Slovenia’s stellar 59%.
One might think that this is only a problem of the older generation of Hungarians but, unfortunately, this is not the case. While younger people do have an advantage over older ones in English language skills, the fact that only one in four of those aged 15-34 speaks “good” English is hardly a cause for celebration. This problem is even more striking when comparing Hungary to its regional peers: except for the Czech Republic, every country shows a higher proportion of young English speakers, for instance their share is 32% in Romania and Poland and even higher in the Baltic states.
While the younger generation, which is most involved in start-ups, is clearly behind the regional competition, the situation is worse still among middle-aged Hungarians, who make up the bulk of the corporate workforce. Only 11% of those aged 35-54 command a higher than basic level of English, while a barely measurable 3% of those over 55 fulfil this criteria.
In the meantime, the lack of practical language skills is weighing on companies trying to succeed in the international arena. A global survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit showed that half of executives at large companies have seen international deals fall through because of communication problems, causing significant losses to the company. A striking 70% of them experienced communication problems during negotiations with foreign partners.
Fortunately, there are signs of positive change: the latest survey by Education First (EF) published in 2014 indicates that Hungary’s English proficiency index (EPI) measuring the level of English language skills increased by 15% between 2007 and 2013, at least among those who filled out the online test of the global language school network. But even with this improvement, Hungary is only 6th among the eight Central European EU members (the Czech Republic and Slovakia had somewhat lower scores).
So where to look for role models? As with many other Central-Eastern European rankings, Poland is also the leading example when it comes to language learning. It is the only country in the region that achieved a “very high” EF English proficiency index while the share of English speakers is one and a half times more than in Hungary. Moreover, Poland has seen the largest improvement since 2007, the year of the first EF-EPI survey. This fits the general trend of improving educational indicators of Poles, demonstrated, among others, by their outstanding results in PISA tests, measuring students’ mathematical, reading and science skills.
Obviously, a complex problem, such as the general improvement of language skills, does not have a simple solution. In Poland, the sweeping educational reforms of the 1990s and 2000s that affected both secondary and university education had a positive impact on students’ willingness to enter higher education and, as a result, to learn languages.
One should also remember that since EU accession, hundreds of thousands of Poles moved to the United Kingdom for work and those who returned are now reaping the benefits of vastly improved English language skills. Poland was also the first country in the region where an innovative method called language immersion – which recreates a native speaking environment in one’s home country – was first implemented. This method soon became a hit with private individuals and companies alike, attracting thousands of students in the past four years.
The concept is unique because it enables fast and effective development of language and communication skills in a native speaking environment without the need for the student to travel abroad. The method was originally developed in the 1960s in Canada for English-speaking pupils to learn French, the country’s other official language. Contrary to traditional language courses, it does not focus on language learning directly: language is merely the means to maintain communication, exactly as if one would be living in London or New York. This is achieved by bringing in native trainers from various English-speaking countries, which enables not only language practice but also learning about the culture – the latter provides priceless value in work, business or even travel situations.
Hungary has plenty of room for improvement in terms of English language skills. Angloville, the company that brought language-immersion programmes to Poland, is launching the concept here, serving both Hungary and Slovakia. See http://angloville.hu/
Second-language skills improve
The proportion of Hungarians speaking a foreign language has gone up 12 percentage points in five years, daily Magyar Nemzet has said, citing the Central Statistical Office. In 2006, only 25% of Hungarians spoke at least one foreign language whereas their proportion in 2011 was 37%, the paper said. All age groups have improved, though Hungary still lags behind the EU average in command of another language, Magyar Nemzet said. It noted that an increasing number of Hungarians aged over 55 realise the social and economic benefit of this. According to the Association of Language Schools, knowledge of a foreign language adds HUF 40,000 on average to the monthly wage of a Hungarian employee, the paper said.
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Immersion is a key in learning a language as it provides the kind of affective input that is lacking in so many language learning methods. The key amongst them is to be engaged.
However as has been found in many English speaking countries, such as the UK and Australia, that immersion does not necessarily work for all immigrants.
It is important to remember that learning happens if we (really) wish to learn and that we don’t get stuck with poor methods, like continually using a bilingual dictionary rather than learning to work out meanings by paying attention to the language and the context.
Andrew, totally agree with your point on the importance of how engaged the language learner is. And you’re right, language immersion probably does not always work with immigrants. The method I described in the article is used in Central Eastern Europe to improve language skills of those who choose to learn English, they demostrate their commitment by paying for the programme. So at Angloville (www.angloville.hu), motivation is not a problem we usually encounter. Those who come to Angloville are the same kind of people that would go on a language course abroad (in the UK or Malta for examples), but they choose a more convenient and yet more intensive one-week programme in Hungary (or Poland) instead.