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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

The Most Failed Language Exam in Hungary - The Sciver's Trap

Updated: Feb 28, 2021

Could it be English? Russian? Mandarin? Arabic? Or a Tongue yet More Exotic?

Table: A section of the table revealing the numbers of successful exams taken (Col 1), failures (Col 2) and total exams (Col 3) for last year, when total numbers were down by some 25% both because of the pandemic and the government relaxing university requirements. (Sorry, Hungarian only - but not really too difficult to decipher – angol = English, német = German.) Source For more years, see section: Sikeresség szerinti bontás nyelvek szerint On February 4, I published a story in this blog (Hungary's Third Most Popular Foreign Language in terms of exams taken - KesterTester 25) as a result of my research for two stories on language education in Hungary. (Those stories are now online - see links at end of this article.) On the way, through an interview with Zoltán Rozgonyi, Managing Director of Euroexam International, I learned that far in the wake of the lead of English and German – which together account for 91% of the state-accredited language exams taken in Hungary - the third most popular language exam was not Spanish, French, Russian, Italian, Arabic or Mandarin (which made up peoples' guesses), but .... Esperanto. Now that was not true for last year, which was exceptional, of course (it was French) but this was over a 15-year period, as logged by Zoltán himself. The reason, he said, was because of a “myth” within the student community that this artificial language was the quickest way to achieve the much coveted B2 qualification, which is needed to be awarded a degree in Hungary. Zoltán gave me the link to the data on state-accredited language exams, and I then began a little research myself.

I wanted to find out, for example, the hardest language to study, or better put, the one with the highest failure rate. Hungarians had a miserable record when it came to learning Russian pre-1990, and knowing it is a difficult language to master for non-Slavic people, that was my first port of call. I was wrong. In 2019, 'only' 138 out of 548 candidates fell short in Russian exams – equating to a 25% failure rate. (I admit too, to surprise at the small numbers sitting Russian – just 0.44% of the total.) A huge number, more than 30,000 individuals, failed English exams last year – far more than all the others put together – but of course, far more sit what has become the international Lingua Franca. In fact, the failure rate was a chunk worse than Russian, at 32%, almost one third of candidates. But German was worse still - 39% flopped in 2020. (It must be noted that both English and German failure rates were lower in 2019.) I also challenged readers to guess which language it might be. The answers were desultory, with the odd stab at Arabic, Chinese and Russian. So, which is it? Well, guess what? I haven't checked back many years, but in the past two for sure, the highest failure rate was Esperanto – with only 40% mastering pass marks in 2019. Last year, was terrible: a shocking seven in ten candidates failed Esperanto exams. Now on the surface, this would support Zoltán Rozgonyi's thesis that students believe in a “myth” when it comes to the ease of learning this contrived language - after all, the failure rate is around twice that of English language candidates. But I pondered this after completing my stories. Now I know nothing of Esperanto, except that L L Zamenhof, the Polish creator back in 1887, set out to create a phonetic language (unlike English) without the incredibly complex agreements and case endings (unlike, say, German and Russian) and without the many irregularities that are the bane of students the world over and plague every natural vernacular that I know of. He might not have done as well as Esperantists like to boast, but I'm sure Zamenhof did a fair job, and I strongly suspect that his creation is indeed easier to learn than, say, English in a strictly neutral environment (ie no extra injection to aid learning, such as popular music). But, as anyone who has attempted to learn another tongue realises, the key to success is a combination of intelligence, diligence, perseverance and – most importantly – enthusiasm/determination. And as any teacher finds from day one in the classroom, unmotivated students are a serious drag on everyone involved.

So what kind of student is one that just wants to tick the box and get the B2 grade in any language? Yup, the one who wants to put in the least effort, the one with no real interest in the subject except to get the bit of paper, and as quickly as possible. I'd say most candidates sitting Esperanto exams fit this model, half-hearted, with little interest beyond acquiring the certificate – and this shows in the high failure rate. I also suspect that students, even in Hungary, fail to recognise the effect of incidental English (and, to a lesser extent, German) in everyday life, be it in popular music, IT, advertising or even public notices, such as Rachel - the female voice on the Budapest Metro. What is also surprising is that this high failure rate is – it would appear – not well known. Certainly Hungarians have expressed surprise when I've broached the subject in the past fortnight.

Indeed, it's really a failure of schools, the media and the Ministry of Human Capacities - responsible for schools - not to publicise this. (But given the fact that the Ministry couldn't even answer a question I sent for the stories I was writing, it's little wonder a more sophisticated task such as this is beyond their ken.) The message in all this for scivers – for that is what they are to a lesser or greater extent – is that skiving ultimately is often self-defeating. In this case, would-be B2 certificate chasers spend time and money studying and then taking an exam that they frequently fail, only to be left with a hazy knowledge of a language they will never use. As one friend exclaimed when I revealed this news about Esperanto: “What a bloody stupid waste of time.”

Newly Published Stories on Language Education in the Budapest Business Journal, describing how the sector struggled - and continues to struggle with the effects of the Covid pandemic. Addendum: Time for the confession of a hypocrite: I was a sciver at school: I took Latin (which I detested) in place of Geography because word in the quad (that was my school's posh word for playground) was the latter involved a lot of work. I failed Latin with the lowest grade at O level. Silly boy.

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Feb 23, 2021

Hungary needs to move away from dubbed TV and more to original language, esp for children's programmes, but it ain't gonna happen

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