Friday, March 27, 2009


High on my list of "Things I would never have known if I hadn't become an English teacher": computer games give you a fantastically broad (although sporadic) vocabulary.

Really, in every class I've got one or two boys, usually players of "vohv" (WoW, World of Warcraft) who know the most bizarre terms. Their vocab falls into several categories, some you would expect, some you would not. Like ways to die (evisceration, decapitation, mauling, kidney punch, exsanguinate (!)), weapons and fighters (crossbow, sniper) body parts (intestines, guts, radials), nature (cavern, crag, fjord, misty, bog, outland, swarm, typhoon) and clothing (buckle, slipper, wimple). All of these are words I've heard from vohv students, sometimes used correctly, sometimes not (one boy thought that "maul" meant something similar to "hug").

And I can't escape it at home, either: a few days ago I was talking to Tomi, and he was telling me about children whose parent died, "and they had to go to a, you know, that place.... an orphantry."

"An orphantry? You mean an orphanage?" I asked. He got that puzzled look I see so often on my students' faces, when they know they've said something wrong but aren't sure what, and started laughing at himself.

"Yeah, you know, I was thinking like infantry... but I guess not."

I think it's my favorite thing about life here: Hunglish, English-Hungarian, and the way people's brains work... it's like my whole world is one big word-association game.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hunglish SMS

This is a bit old, but I found it when I was cleaning old SMSs off my phone. It's one of my all-time favorite samples of Hunglish, written with perfect grammar by a woman completely fluent in both languages:

Szia Emily! Thank you a könyvet! You are very aranyos! Elkezdtem to read it, I like it nagyon. Köszi again! Take care :)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Answering by rote: FAIL

Today I was playing a speaking game with my students. I drew a card that said "Tell the others two positve things and two negative things about yourself."

"Well," I began confidently, "A good thing about me is-" and then my brain froze. I stuttered on. "Um, I mean, a bad thing about me is, yeah, sometimes I'm selfish, and, and, and..." I had nothing.

Big deal, right? We all have brain farts now and then. But there's something very important to remember, which I'll point out here for the benefit for all 3 of my readers who aren't other English teachers in Hungary. I spend my life answering these questions. The same ones, over and over. What's your favorite band / music / color / food / class / thing about Hungary? What did you do at the weekend? Describe your family. Describe your ideal teacher / husband / friend. Descibe your personality. These are the question-and-answers that are drilled into the heads of Hungarian students. These are all things that, 95% of the time, I can rattle off without thinking about. Except for today.

Luckily, I have awesome students.

"Well, you're kinda lazy," one said helpfully.

"Yes!" Never been so grateful to be insulted. "Yes, bad things about me are that I'm selfish and lazy. Good things are.... uhm.... I'm a good cook, and...."

"And you have a good accent," offered another. Well, duh, but thanks. I'll adore anyone who tells me they prefer my American accent to the British one they learn normally.

"And you like beer!" Okay, someone else's turn to speak.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Tea is not a legitimate medicine!

1298 days I've lived in Hungary (no, I don't actually keep track, carving each day like a prisoner on my wall; I estimated it out just now). There are many things I've gotten used to. Like thinking in forint, not dollars. Feeling heat in Celsius, not Fahrenheit. Bringing my own bag for shopping. In the more specific region of Hungarian health care, I've also adapted: getting naked in front of a doctor, nurse, and a couple random strangers? Sure, why not. Someone tells me that they have a headache/ leg ache/ minor depression because of the front passing through? Okay, I kinda buy it. I've even been sufficiently beaten down enough that when someone says "Last night I went out with wet hair and now I have a cold," I smile and nod and bite back a lecture about the modern science of germs and viruses.
But this:

Having tea prescribed by a doctor is something I will never accept. Never! I'm not at all sorry to cling firmly to my American roots in this matter. When I go to the doctor, I expect one of two answers. Either a kindly, "Here's some actual hardcore drugs," or a firm, "It's just a cold. Suck it up and get out of my office."

And I do know that tea, especially chamomile, does have some medicinal properties. Had this tea been prescribed for something like a sore throat, or an upset stomach, I wouldn't have questioned it's value. But what was it prescribed for? An eye infection. I just don't get it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Today, after the normal morning announcements, one of the science teachers got on the microphone and declared that someone had broken into his lab, desecrated one of his stuffed chickens, and left a nasty note. Then he threatened life and limb of whoever it was, promising to spare their soul if they would turn themselves in before he called "his friends in the police." Yes, the whole thing's just as wonky as it sounds, plus you should imagine this speech given in his booming, outraged voice. If I had been the delinquent, I would have been terrified.

I had my first lesson of the day with That Class, who thought the announcement was the funniest thing they'd ever heard. I admit, it was a little over-the-top dramatic (seriously, he was speaking like an old-fashioned preacher drawing down the wrath of God) but nonetheless, there was the serious side - someone willfully destroyed his personal property. I can only imagine how I would react if someone if someone wounded me like that.

But of course, this class couldn't see past the humor. They screeched with laughter and spent the whole lesson repeating the speech, embellishing and retelling it in increasing volume and outlandish voices. Sympathy for the victim of the crime? Two or three students only. The rest, nada. I think they would have laughed at a rape victim if she'd told her story in a whiny voice. I might have guessed that the reason for their hilarity was because one of them was the culprit. But at the time I just chalked it up to their usual juvenile obsession with anything that isn't the assignments I give them.

Anyway, the whole episode with this class disgusted me. Not to start my own self-righteous, over-dramatic tirade, but... Up to now, I always struggled to teach them, and I always fought with myself to care about teaching them well, but I managed to do it because I still liked them as people, you know? It was depressing to realize today how completely selfish, self-centered, and two-faced most of them are. What a disappointment. I can't get over how totally disheartening and disillusioning this was. And what about tomorrow, and next week? How can I walk in and teach a group of people for whom I have zero respect, neither as students, and now not even as decent human beings? How can I communicate with them? How can I grade them fairly? How can I be objective? Why should I bother?

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Sounds like a joke, but...

nope, instead just another example of how I'm warping the language of today's youth, and vice-versa:

Two Hungarians and an American walk into a hot room.
The American says: "Hüüj de warm van."
Hungarian 1 says: "Oh my god it's very meleg."
Hungarian 2 looks at us both strangely, and shakes his head wordlessly.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Things I woke up to this week

1) I woke up to a phone alarm ringing. Then being smacked into snooze. Then ringing ten minutes later. Then being accidentally dropped into a glass of water by the bed. Then a long string of cursing.

2) I woke up to an sms from a friend saying "Call me before 8!" I dragged myself out of bed. Called. No answer. (I did get in touch with her later, and she was having a worse morning than I was.)

3) I woke up to there being no coffee at home. Questions as to why revealed that, while I was working late the previous day, some sort of coffee-drinking party was held in my absence.

4) I woke up to a gentle but persistent poking and "Hey, hey! It's 6:45! Don't you have to be at work by 7?" Answer: "No."

Despite these, it turned out to be an okay week.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Érettségi (part first of many)

I'll try not to rant, but this is my biggest frustration with the Hungarian education system, and it's not just me; I have yet to meet anyone telling me it's a good system. So, students finishing from a gimnázium all take the érettségi (matura, Arbitur, school-leaving exam, etc). This test, supposedly, measures all they've learned in 4 (or 5) years of high school. They take 5 exams, 3 required and 2 of their choosing. The required subjects are history, math, and Hungarian language and lit. The chosen subjects can be anything they want, as long as one of them is a language. Seriously, they can take an exam in P.E. is they want.

Here's the problem. In mid-February the seniors choose what tests they want to take as their optionals. After that, they have absolutely no motivation to do anything in their other classes - and why would they, because their grades don't count. Yes, you read that correctly. The only thing that counts at the end of the year are the grades they get in their érettségi. So I can give them as many 1s and 2s as I want, but these grades don't go into their record. They only thing they're good for is a) harassing the students who still care about being good students or b) leverage over the students whose parents still care about their grades.

I was thinking about it the other day and if I were the mother of a Hungarian senior, I wouldn't care what marks they get their last semester - after all, as long as they get good érettségi marks, nothing else matters. On the other hand, if I were a Hungarian senior myself, I would still work and try to get good marks - but just because I liked being a student.

One of my students told me a great joke about the érettségi. It perfectly illustrates my third problem with the exam, which I will get into in detail some other time. For now, just the joke:

Three students go to take their history exam. They each pay some protekcio. Student one is pretty dumb, needs all the help he can get, so he pays a lot. Student two is average, so he pays a little. Student three is a bright kid, figures he can pass on his own intelligence, so he doesn't pay anything.
Student one goes for the exam. The teacher asks, "When was World War Two?"
Student one answers, "Um..... the sixteenth century?"
"Great!" says the teacher, "It's a five (the highest mark)!"
Student two goes in next, and gets the same question, "When was WW2?"
"It was in the 20th century..."
"Okay," says the teacher, "and how many people died?"
"Maybe... about a million?"
"Good enough, it's a five!"
Student three goes in confidently. "When was World War Two?"
"From 1939 to 1945."
"And how many people died?"
"One million."
"By name?"