How To Learn The Hungarian Language By Yourself (Without Signing Up For Classes)

avatarMille Larsen
22 mins read

The Hungarian language is one of the few non-Indo-European languages in Europe. It's widely regarded as complicated and difficult to learn. In reality, it's not that bad. Hungarian is very different from English and that means that you need to get used to another way of thinking when learning the language. It also means that it'll take a little longer to learn than, say, French or Dutch for the average English speaker.

But Hungarian is not difficult to learn!

Hungarian's closest relative is Finnish and Estonian. The three are part of a language family called "Finno-Ugric" Finnish and Estonian are on the "Finno" side and Hungarian is the sole significant representative left from the "Ugric" side. This means that even the most related languages are very different.

How to learn Hungarian?

Understanding The Hungarian Alphabet And Pronunciation

When learning Hungarian you have the advantage of already knowing the alphabet. At least to a degree! Hungarian uses a modified version of the Latin alphabet that English uses too. It has a total of 44 letters, but many of them are written using letters you already know from English in combination or with adding accent marks.

Have a look at this video that goes through each letter with a word example. Notice that each vowel has a short and long form.

As you can see, pronunciation is Hungarian isn't the biggest hurdle despite the many letters.

The Hungarian alphabet also has the advantage of being almost completely phonetic. This means that words are pronounced exactly as they're written, unlike English. In other words, as soon as you have learned the whole alphabet, you can pretty much pronounce, read, and write anything.

Getting Started With A Hungarian Beginner's Course

After familiarizing yourself with Hungarian pronunciation and how the letters are used, it's time to get started with your studying routine.

I recommend that you get a good beginner's course and that you start doing a lesson per day. Find a good moment throughout your day where you can consistently dedicate half an hour or 45 minutes to studying Hungarian. I like studying in the morning, but you need to figure out what suits you the best.

A course I can warmly recommend is Assimil Hungarian (link to amazon). Assimil is a language learning series that teaches languages through written dialogues and recorded audio. Vocabulary, grammar, and other features of the language are gradually introduced through the dialogues that grow gradually more and more complicated as you move along with the lessons.

I like the Assimil series because it's a very intuitive approach. You learn from the context rather than having everything dissected and analyzed in tedious explanations and tables. The book covers grammar too, but the Assimil approach focuses mainly on the dialogues.

This is how I recommend that you use Assimil Hungarian when going through a lesson:

  • First read through the English version of the text. This gives you an idea of what's going on, and what kind of vocabulary and sentences you're about to learn.
  • Then listen to the Hungarian audio, trying to follow along in the text.
  • Play the Hungarian audio again, but this time, pause between sentences and try to repeat after the recording. Mimic the Hungarian speaker as precisely as you can in terms of speed, pronunciation, melody, and rhythm. Try repeating each sentence 2-3 times.
  • Then listen to the whole thing once more, trying to follow along in the text. Peek to the English if you're unsure of the meaning of certain words.
  • After finishing with the dialogues, read through the grammar notes and have a look at the exercises. If you feel like it, do these, but it's also fine if you only skim through them

For each day and each new lesson you do, I recommend that you listen to the previous 5-10 dialogues while following along in the text. If there are words you don't understand, check the text in English. And don't hesitate to also pause and repeat after the recordings.

The Importance Of Varying Your Approach And Doing Multiple Things At Once In Hungarian

When I study languages I always try to attack the language from multiple fronts. When you study new information like Hungarian vocabulary and grammar, all the words tend to end up seeming like a strange soup of undefinable pieces of information in a big mess. You don't really remember anything for sure and all words seem equally foreign.

What you need to do, is to make new information stand out. When you first come upon a new word, you usually file it in your brain-library with a "tag" like the word's translation in English. While this might be a good definition of the word, it's hard to remember, because it's simply not that memorable.

There are a lot of different techniques that you can use to create better associations and tags to stick to words to remember them. I've written an article about remembering words that you might be interested in reading.

But the most obvious technique, and the most effective one, if you're not already doing it, is to study multiple sources at the same time.

That moment that you listen to a radio newscast and recognize a word that you only vaguely remembered from a book you've read, you stimulate the memory of that word very strongly.

Your brain goes "hey, I KNOW that word" even though it hardly did, and you'll gain the invincible combination of a new association + a happy memory about that word. What this means is that you weave connections, or synapses in your brain that makes the memory stay tight in place, where once it was only anchored with a thin string - or a direct translation.

So I always keep my study approach varied. As an advanced student or when I'm at the intermediate stage, I do all sorts of things at once like listening to podcasts, reading novels, watching movies, and conversing with natives.

But what can you do as a complete beginner to vary your study routine?

Get A Second Beginner's Course To Study Simultaneously

To properly vary your study routine in the beginner's phase of learning Hungarian, I recommend that you pick up a second beginner's course that you work through in parallel with Assimil.

One that I often recommend is Teach Yourself Hungarian (link to amazon)

Teach Yourself is a textbook much like Assimil. It's based on dialogue, it's got good audio and it evolves progressively. But where Assimil is mostly intuitive and light on grammar, Teach Yourself spends a little longer on explaining to you about the inner workings of Hungarian.

While I'm not generally a fan of grammar explanations, I think that a course that's a little more grammar-controlled can be a great addition to use in combination with Assimil. Without going overboard of course!

I suggest that you study with Teach Yourself Hungarian in a similar way as to how I proposed that you use Assimil. If you've managed to fit Assimil into your morning routine, try doing Teach Yourself in the evening or afternoon. Make a routine out of it, and do your daily revisions like you would with Assimil.

You'll notice that the two courses will touch on many of the same things. This is not a problem. Sometimes one will bring a new concept up before the other and sometimes it's the other way around. You can consider this repetition. But at the same time, it helps you to better learn the word or grammar point because you're recognizing it from the other course.

Improve Hungarian Pronunciation, Listening, Vocabulary, And Grammar With Glossika

After having worked your way perhaps half-way into your two beginner's courses, it's time to start adding something new to your Hungarian study routine: Glossika.

Since I discovered Glossika, I've been a fan of their language learning system. It's really simple to use, even though it's built on some rather complicated theories on language learning. (Scroll down for a link)

The idea is that you learn to use the Hungarian language from seeing words and grammar used in sentences.

A lot of sentences!

The program gradually introduces you to Hungarian sentences that evolve little by little. Each new sentence is related to the previous one and uses some of the same vocabulary as well as grammar. It's then scheduled for review several times, meaning that you'll see the same phrase again and again.

Eventually, you'll begin to recognize patterns - instinctively or not! And you'll start to automatically get a feeling for how the language works, a little like how you instinctively recognize slight errors in English. You simply get used to correctly spoken Hungarian!

This is how Glossika Hungarian works:

When you first begin studying Hungarian, you're asked to do a placement test. Unless you've skipped ahead and you already consider yourself well-versed in beginning Hungarian, skip this test and start from the beginning.

You'll start by studying your first five Hungarian sentences. In one study session, your five new sentences will be repeated 5 times each (at random) meaning that you'll be doing 25 repetitions in total.

This is what the study interface looks like with Glossika Hungarian

As soon as you begin a study session, you'll see a screen like the one above. A sentence is written in English, followed by the same thing in Hungarian. You'll hear the English phrase once followed by a pause, then the Hungarian recording twice.

  • When you first hear the English sentence, respond by immediately reading the Hungarian sentence out loud. Try doing this as precisely and correctly as you can.
  • Now you'll hear the Hungarian sentence in an audio recording repeated two times. As soon as the recording has finished, repeat as naturally as possible. It's important that you try to imitate the speed, pronunciation, melody, intonation, and rhythm of the recording as precisely as you can!

It'll be very difficult to repeat out loud, to begin with, and due to the limited time you have available, you'll probably find yourself mumbling a lot. Don't worry about this. You'll do numerous repetitions of the same sentence in the future, so you'll eventually be able to pronounce it correctly.

It's important, however, that you don't take the easy route and pause or slow down the speech. You should try to follow along and do this in the natural speed of the recordings, or you'll start to rely on slowed-down Hungarian sentences, which isn't the point.

After having finished your first 5 sentences (25 reps) you might be asking yourself "was that it?" 5 Sentences don't seem like a lot, and you can go ahead and do 10-15 more new sentences. But don't go crazy. All new sentences that you study now will be scheduled for review a lot of times in the future, so you'll quickly end up creating a backlog of work.

The Importance Of Reps In Glossika Hungarian

Glossika is all about repetition. The more often you study a Hungarian sentence, the better you'll know it. And the more sentences you know, the better a feeling you'll get for the language.

Once you've studied a new sentence with Glossika, it's immediately scheduled for review. At first, you can expect to have phrases up for review after 12-24 hours. You simply go through these sentences as you would with new sentences in order to review them. Always get your reviews out of the way before doing any new sentences.

For each time you review a previously studied sentence, it's rescheduled further into the future. Glossika's algorithm for scheduling reviews is based on the forgetting curve. The forgetting curve is a mathematical model that tries to predict when you're about to forget new information.

According to the model, for each time you review a new piece of information, you'll remember it a little longer. So each time you review a sentence in Glossika, it's scheduled at a gradually longer interval.

You can help this a little on the way by tagging the individual sentences as "easy" or "difficult" which in turn influences if Glossika schedules the sentence a little sooner or a little later.

With Glossika, the key to success is reps. The milestones in the Glossika program are also based on reps. The people behind the system tell you to aim for 25.000, 50.000, and 75.000 reps. At these milestones, you're supposed to reach important breakthroughs with Hungarian.

If you want to learn more about Glossika, you can go check out my Glossika review.

Or you can go directly to the Glossika website.

Time To Start Reading In Hungarian

When you've almost finished your Assimil and your Teach Yourself Hungarian courses and done a good amount of reps in Glossika, it's time to start taking reading more seriously.

Most people, when they think of reading as a tool in language learning, go straight to thinking about reading a book with a dictionary. You read the story and you look up words in the dictionary as you go.

This is not a good idea.

Why? Because as a beginner or an intermediate student you're bound to having to look up words all the time. Imagine reading a book and having to look up words 10-20 times per page! And for each dictionary look-up, you have to pick up the dictionary, find the right page, pick the right definition, compare it to the context, and get back into reading. Only to be interrupted by a new unknown word 10 seconds later.

You'll be spending all of your time in the dictionary and you won't remember a thing about the story you're trying to read!

So how, then should you go about reading as a beginner in Hungarian? do you have to read children's books and language learning guides for months before getting to interesting material?

No, there are plenty of techniques that you can use to make reading work even as an intermediate student.

Use A Pop-Up Dictionary To Read Hungarian Online

A great tool that I use all the time is Google Dictionary. The Google Dictionary is a browser extension developed by Google for the Chrome browser (although alternatives exist for other browsers too).

It allows you to click any word anywhere on the internet and get an instant translation that even takes the context of the unknown word into consideration.

How to learn Hungarian with Google Dictionary

Using Google Dictionary to read a Hungarian article about paprika

You can read anything that interests you this way. Just go and google something about your hobby, current events, or something else in Hungarian. If you're unsure how to find articles, just type whatever you're looking for into Google Translate and go look for the Hungarian articles on the subject. In the above example, I searched "how to dry your own paprika". There's no limit to things you could read.

Do try to keep the subjects light, however. Reading about gardening, pets or fishing is much easier than trying to grasp philosophic concepts or political history in Hungarian, and although these topics might interest you in English, you won't get a good experience out of reading about them in Hungarian just yet!

Read Hungarian With LingQ

LingQ is a great tool for reading in language learning that I've been using for years now. You can import any kind of text into LingQ and study it through their interface, or you can study texts already in the system.

One of the main features with LingQ is that it remembers the vocabulary you know, the words you're in the process of learning and it marks the words you don't know.

This is what it looks like:

How to learn Hungarian with LingQ

The LingQ app while studying a text in Hungarian

When you first start studying a text with LingQ, you'll be faced with a page full of words marked with a blue background. These are "unknown words" (or words that LingQ doesn't know that you know..) Click one and you'll hear the pronunciation of the word and get a pop-up with a few possible translations as well as an "I know this word" button and one that says "ignore".

For people's names and other letter-combinations that I don't consider words, I pick "ignore". This way it's not counted in the system as a word. If I click "ignore", the blue color disappears. The same happens if you click "I know this word" except that it counts in the statistics.

If you don't already know the word, click a translation, and you'll notice that the word turns from blue to yellow. Yellow words are called "LingQs" and are words that you're in the process of learning.

For each new text you read, you'll see the same words marked as yellow until you decide to mark them as "known".

After finishing reading, I recommend that you go and have a look at the yellow words you've picked. There are a number of ways that you can work with these. LingQ proposes that you study them through flashcards, or it can send you daily reminders with lists of words you're learning.

I find that the most effective thing is to go and work with the definition you've picked. LingQ encourages you to write a "hint" rather than a direct translation. This shouldn't be underestimated.

Try thinking of other ways that you can explain what a word means. Can you think of a synonym? Would you rather explain what the word means in your own words in Hungarian or even English? Are there other associations you can think of that would help you remember the word?

Anything, in fact, is better than a direct dictionary translation for remembering words. As soon as you fill in something that you've thought of, you'll have created a connection in your brain between the word and its meaning. Actually doing something with the word, or really considering and thinking about it in a different way than "X = Y" creates much stronger memories than just picking an automatic translation.

You can't always do this for all new words, but as you keep on using LingQ, you'll notice that there are certain words that you keep on seeing, and each time you look at the translation, you feel as though you ought to know that word by know. These are the kind of words where you should work with hints. Do so, and you'll notice that you'll be able to mark the word as "known" within days.

Want to learn more about LingQ? Try reading my LingQ review.

Or go directly to the LingQ website.

Learn Hungarian By Reading English And Hungarian Books In Parallel

If you're not much for reading texts off your computer screen, there are other options. Something that I have used with great success in the past is parallel reading.

Parallel reading is when you read the same book in two languages side by side. First, you read a sentence, paragraph, or even a chapter in English, then you read the corresponding text in Hungarian.

What this does is it makes you understand the subtleties of the story, what's written between the lines, and all difficult vocabulary beforehand. It allows you to read in Hungarian with fluidity without having to constantly stop and look up words or lose track of the plot.

With parallel reading, the more you read, the better. If you have a favorite book, or even better, book series, try looking it up in Hungarian and have a go at reading it in parallel with English.

I recommend that you go for page-turners. Those big and meaty volumes that work with suspense to keep you from putting down the book.

Other classics for language learners include Alice in Wonderland and The Little Prince. (links to amazon) - But not a lot of Hungarian books are available on Amazon, so you might have to look elsewhere. A trip to Hungary is a great opportunity to fill your suitcase!

Start Speaking And Writing Hungarian With A Tutor

You've been at it for a while now. Your beginner's guides are behind you. You still study with Glossika every day and you've established a daily routine of reading Hungarian texts.

The next step is to begin producing the language. I recommend that you do this with a Hungarian tutor.

There are plenty of websites where you can find listings of experienced tutors in a ton of languages. One such is Italki, go to their listing of Hungarian tutors and pick someone that you think you'll be able to work with.

I recommend that you take control of your tutoring from the beginning. Define how you'd like it to work out, and agree about it with your tutor before even getting started.

I suggest that you do 2-3 sessions per week for a duration of about 30-45 minutes. Always agree on a topic of discussion beforehand and stick to it. And then you need to keep the conversation in Hungarian, and keep it, well, conversational! A lot of tutors have their own programs, lessons, language learning materials that they recommend, and so on. What you need is to converse in Hungarian at that's all.

That's why you also need to hear yourself speak at least 50% of the time. If it's mainly your tutor who's speaking, you're wasting your money. The conversation has become listening comprehension, and you can get listening comprehension for free on YouTube. So make sure to speak, and don't be afraid of making mistakes.

You'll want your tutor to keep corrections and explanations at an absolute minimum, however. He or she might write you a report with some pointers and suggestions after the end of the conversation, but the flow shouldn't be interrupted while you speak.

After finishing your conversation and hanging up, sit down and write a short text in Hungarian about the topic you just discussed. In the beginning, you can make it 100-300 words, but as you improve, you might want to write longer texts. Send it to your tutor and have him or her correct it.

When you receive the corrected text, make sure to read through the corrections and to make note of everything. But don't beat yourself up if you keep making the same mistakes for some time. This is normal!

An Alternative To A Paid Tutor: Language Exchange

Hiring a tutor can be extremely effective. You can't get around the fact, however, that it can cost a lot of money.

That's why people look for alternative ways to get speaking and writing practice. One is obviously making friends. There are thousands of Hungarian Facebook groups out there on a wide variety of topics. You're pretty sure to find something that interests you. Go and interact with people and make friends.

This, however, is not a very structured approach, and if your conversation partners speak better English than you speak Hungarian, you really can't demand that they stick to slowed-down Hungarian to help you.

This is where language exchange might be an option. There are many places online where you can find language partners, who're native Hungarians willing to help you with your Hungarian in exchange for some help with English.

While this can be a great way to move forward, it has its drawbacks too. When you pay a tutor, you're the one who makes the demands and judges the quality of the service you receive. With language exchange, you can't expect a lot from your language buddy.

You'll be hard-pressed to find someone who's a good tutor, has the same motivation and ambitions as you do, and who's willing to use the same method. And even if you do find the perfect match, you can't expect all of this without giving the same in return. This means that you'll have to spend a significant amount of time helping your language partner with his English, conversing, writing reports, and correcting texts.

This might not be a problem for you, but for a lot of people, it's already hard enough to find the time to study Hungarian alone. (Here's an article I wrote about studying languages on a busy schedule).

But this isn't to say that language exchange won't work! As it's the case with anything, it might take a little trial and error, however. And it carries the bonus of making friends.

Finally - You Just Need To Get Started

Hungarian is a language that a lot of people consider difficult to learn. It's actually not that bad, and you, too, can become fluent in a couple of years if you put in the work.

(To find out how long, try my language learning calculator!)

You do need to be consistent, though. The single most important ingredient in language learning is patience. If you end up demotivated and you skip too many days, you'll end up giving up. That's a shame.

Language learning is like building a house with your bare hands. It takes time, and you won't notice the progress you make each day. But if you keep at it, one day you'll realize that the house is built and that you've reached your goal.

So get to studying, and keep doing it!