Why are proud Hungarians mastering English? Simple pragmatism.

Hungarians and other Central Europeans are mastering English at a much greater clip than many of their continental peers, in part due to a lack of 'lingual baggage' over learning another language.

David Nagy works on the ground floor café of a multinational bank in Budapest, where English is often the language of office-place banter. 

He's hoping to prime his own English skills for a future job search. Plus he likes American movies.

“I have met many Italians who don’t want to learn English because they 'must' speak Italian,” says the 25-year-old barista, fluttering his hands in mock outrage at speaking English.

His utter lack of pretension about Hungarian, on the other hand, is one of the driving reasons why Central Europeans have mastered English at a much greater clip than some of their lagging Western European peers.

According to Education First’s most recent English Proficiency Index, based on adults who take their tests, Hungarians are among the fastest adapters of English in Europe, along with Poland and Spain. Hungarian adults rank higher than their peers in France, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland – and Italy.

“Central Europeans don’t speak [native] languages that have a world position. They are not hindered by that baggage,” says Kate Bell, the EPI analyst at Education First in Paris.

Hungary still has a long way to go when it comes to English proficiency. In a Eurobarometer poll from 2012, only one-fifth of respondents said they could hold a conversation in it.

Still, if English fluency is not a given here like it might be in the Hague or Helsinki, this reporter's recent trip to meet with government officials, civil society activists, religious leaders, and the like required the use of a translator just once. English isn’t nearly as widespread outside of the capital, but cold-calling to set up interviews was 100 percent successful with English only. The same is never true when doing comparable work in France, Italy, or Spain. 

Post-Soviet boom

Of all of Central Europe, Poland stands out as the star performer. It overhauled its education system in the 1990s and 2000s and began to top international educational charts. Poland is the lone Central European nation to have mastered English, according to the EF index, alongside Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands.

For many such countries in Central Europe, the shift to English came at the first chance to leave Russian behind. In 1990, Poland counted 18,000 Russian language teachers. By the 2002-03 school year, there were only 6,900. In that time period English language instruction surged, from 1,200 teachers counted in 1990 to 36,000 a decade later.

Today there are undoubtedly more, as former Soviet satellites joined the EU in 2004 and English became the working language of the international community. And to that landscape have come a crop of entrepreneurs filling what they describe as an insatiable demand.

One company called Angloville, which started in Poland in 2011, offers one-week English-language immersion courses. The program pairs volunteers – traveling retirees, students, backpackers, and the like – who might offer their native tongue in exchange for free room and board and the chance to get to know the culture, with locals who need to quickly acquire some English. In 2013, the company ran 16 programs. In 2014, they ran 32. And this year they have 57 courses planned – including in a new market, Hungary.

“As people across Central Europe have recognized the importance of English proficiency for business and travel we’ve experienced a lot of demand for our programs,” says Mitch Hume, a program coordinator at Angloville.

'English is what it is'

That demand could grow soon. Hungary has improved its English skills in part because of education reforms that made foreign language acquisition a requirement before graduating from college. Now the government is eying changes to make such skills a requirement even before university. They can choose English or German, with 60 percent choosing the former.

Hungarians speak lovingly and patriotically about their own language, Magyar, which doesn’t belong to the three main categories of Europe: Slavic, Germanic, or Romance. But they don’t feel that their language is under threat just because English looks great on a CV.

That’s not the case everywhere in Europe. Some resent the requirement to learn English when Americans and Brits barely bother to say "bonjour," let alone negotiate complex deals in a foreign tongue. In France, when the government announced in 2013 it was going to expand the rights of universities to instruct in English, there was nearly a riot among the intelligentsia. France also happens to sit at the bottom of the EF EU ranking. 

“There is less of a willingness to say English is what it is, and everyone is going to learn it,” as is the case in Scandinavia and increasingly Central Europe, says Bell. But language need not be conflated with culture, she argues. It can simply be viewed as a hard skill, like learning Excel or algebra.

“You don’t have to learn it because you like the US or you aspire to live in the UK. You can learn English and not like English-speaking countries at all.”

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