Not quite as bad as a "Pile of Meats" but it's getting there - Foreign language knowledge in Hungary is improving, slowly, but it could, and should, be much more effective.
Photo: Snapped by a regular reader of Perspectives Budapest this past weekend - the Fire Safety instructions, in English, in a four-star hotel room in the town of Szekszárd.
One afternoon in late 1990, I met up with Ray Neinstein, an old friend who, sadly, has recently passed. We were on Moszkva tér, and we went for a meal to the Márkus Étterem, a restaurant nearby on Lövőház utca. Suddenly Ray burst out laughing. The Márkus was trying to cater for the fast-growing international population settling and visiting Budapest, and had got its menu translated.
I forget the name of the item in Hungarian, but the source of Ray's amusement was what they had put down in English as a "Pile of Meats".
Fast forward 31 years and, from the photo above, we can see that not only foreign language knowledge, but just an awareness of the difficulties of translating from one vernacular to another, is still way below standards generally encountered not just in western Europe, but in much of former Socialist-Communist Europe. Try speaking English in rural Serbia or Croatia for example, and you'll be amazed at how competent and confident many people, certainly the youth, are in the language. In the Baltic states, it will be assumed that anyone applying for a professional position will be reasonably fluent in either English or German (and probably Russian).
Yet, last week, the government passed a directive: students graduating this summer will once again not need to attain a B2 level foreign language exam to gain their first degree.
Of course, we Brits (nor most English-speaking countries) can't boast: our knowledge of foreign languages is generally miserably low. But as Zoltán Rozgonyi, Managing Director, Euroexam International and chairman of Nyelvtudásért, an association of language teaching and testing professionals, says, native English speakers are in a different position to most nations. We can negotiate the world and many of its hurdles without much linguistic knowledge - even if we don't realise the disadvantages of our ignorance.
Hungarians can't do that so easily.
Rozgonyi recently told the Szabad Európa website there is simply no need to offer this waiver to its undergraduates on account of the Covid pandemic. Language learning, he said, is one of the areas of education that has suffered the least because of the pandemic.
"Personal language teaching was not possible for roughly three weeks this year, from mid-March to early April. But for university students, distance learning solutions had to be developed right from the start of the epidemic, they have been studying online for a year, anyone who wanted to could study in complete flexibility," he says.
"Everyone has had a harder life in the past year, but even across the education system, student learning has been the least severely affected by the epidemic."
The (long) interview is here, but only in Hungarian.
The government move, in effect, simply sweeps the dire inefficiencies of the Hungarian education system under the carpet. (Hungarians typically spend more hours than most European school kids in language classes - but the classes simply don't teach effectively - although there are multiple other reasons behind the poor knowledge, Rozgonyi notes.)
Of course, you can bet your last HUF 5 that the kids of all government top dogs are not only fluent in English and probably another foreign language, they've probably attended special schools to get themselves to this level.
If the rest of the population, even those with degrees, are largely trapped into working in Hungarian only, you have to ask who that benefits most?
By the way, as many readers will know, the Márkus Étterem - in somewhat better paintwork than in 1991 - is still dishing out fine meals, but the "Pile of Meats" menu has long gone.
One just wonders how many months it took management to notice how few English-speaking foreigners chose this dish from the menu before they cottoned on.