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Our 28th year of publishing

Published July13, 2021

I learned languages while looking for a new home

By John Toth / The Bulletin

The disadvantage to moving from country to country as a child was that just by the time I got used to the place, we were on the plane to a new life. The advantage was that by the time I was 12, I knew three languages.

I would have preferred to learn two of them in a classroom. Instead, I learned them by being dropped into a country where I could not understand what anyone said.

Sink or swim, I like to say. When you don’t have a choice, swimming is a good option.

After leaving Hungary and arriving in Austria, where they speak German, I quickly found out that Hungarian was pretty useless anywhere but Hungary. There are less than 10 million people in that country and another 10 million spread around the world. None of us have any use for the language other than when we talk to fellow Hungarians.

Which, in my case, is very seldom. After my mother died in 1986, I lost a lot of my native language and had to recapture it by frequently writing to relatives in the old country. Facebook has made this easy.

German turned out to be more useful. I became fluent in it within a year, or at least enough that I could converse with classmates in Vienna and pass all my classes. I was on my way to perfection when word came that we’re “fahren nach Amerika.” And, they speak English there.

“Can’t we just stay here?” I asked my mother. We really could not, even if she wanted to. But she didn’t. This was in the 1960s, and Vienna was just too close to where we escaped from. She wanted to go far away.

Learning English was easier. A lot of German and English words are similar.

English also does not have some of the seemingly random language rules that German has. It was actually fun to learn, and within six months, I had it down enough to be able to blend in with my classmates (with a very heavy accent) and pass all my classes.

Then German started fading. While I tried to revive it, the new world’s intricacies took over, and German through the years went into the shadows.

But it’s making a comeback through Duolingo.com. It’s a free language learning app that I use almost daily. The app is like playing a game, except I am learning a language. It has made a big difference, although I am still not at the level I was at age 12.

I took High School Spanish for two or three years. Some of it stuck, but not enough. Kids, if you are reading this, take advantage of free language offerings in your public school. It’s very valuable. Spanish in this area is the most practical second language to learn.

Duolingo to the rescue again. Now I am also doing daily Spanish lessons. A lot of what I have learned decades ago is coming back. But let’s not converse yet in Spanish. Give me a little more time.

I have combined Duolingo with Google Translate. They make it easy to keep advancing my language skills and also to translate something that I am interested in, which is in another language. Google Translate has it down to almost perfection.

It’s actually easier to write out what I want to say in English and have Google translate it to German or Hungarian. Then I edit it and send it. My virtual language skills have instantly improved. My real ones, not as much yet

Looking back to those turbulent childhood years, they were actually a lot of fun, although back in those days I was too busy keeping up with the daily changes and challenges. But it was a real life adventure.

“You’ll pick up the language fast and make new friends,” my mother assured me in Vienna as we were getting ready to depart.

She was right on both counts.

Viszlát kedves olvasó, jövő hétig. Auf Wiedersehen lieber Leser, bis nächste Woche. Goodbye dear reader, until next week.

(John looks forward to hearing from you on this subject. Send me a note at john.bulletin@gmail.com. You can even send an old-fashioned letter to: The Bulletin, P.O. Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516.)