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Why Hungarian Is So Difficult To Learn (And Why You Should Learn It Anyway)

We spoke to one of the owners of the only Hungarian bookstore in the United States about the complexity and the value of this isolated language.

Among the things native English speakers are known to struggle with, Mandarin Chinese, the rolled "r," and general self-awareness rank prominently.

That last part was mainly a joke, but learning Hungarian isn’t. Most Americans probably don’t know this, but Hungarian is one of the most difficult languages an English speaker can learn, as well as one of the most rewarding.

As it so happens, Hungarian is also a rare language to encounter in the United States. There’s only one Hungarian bookstore in the entire country: 10 Thousand Steps Bookstore in New York City. Timea Zsedely, who co-owns the store with her husband Mikky, says that although there are 9 million Hungarian speakers in Hungary and 7 million more outside its borders, there are only about 1.5 million people in the U.S. who consider themselves Hungarian, and many of them are first-generation Americans who struggle with the language.

Founded in 2008 and now residing in New York’s East Village neighborhood, the bookstore hosts many cultural and language programs. Naturally, it provides lessons in Hungarian, as well as English, Spanish and German, with French, Polish and Portuguese possibilities in the future. It also runs a theater and film group that orchestrates multilingual theater productions.

As a professional language instructor who’s been teaching the Hungarian language for 16 years, Zsedely believes it’s the second most difficult language an English speaker can learn, with Mandarin being the first.

"Hungarian is the most creative language in the world, which means you can play with the order and the cases, and moreover, with the suffixes and prefixes, too," she said.

Here a few more reasons why she says you might struggle with Hungarian — and why it’s worth it.

  • Hungarian has 35 distinct cases (like accusative), many of which are remnants of the Latin language.

  • Word order is often flexible, and you can even create an independent word from just a prefix and a suffix, or from two suffixes. "For example, ‘nálam’ means ‘at my place,’ but we don’t have to say ‘place’ because ‘-nál’ is originally a suffix, which means ‘at,’ and ‘-m’ is a possessive suffix (first-person singular), plus ‘-a-’ is only a bridge sound (to make easier the pronunciation)," she explained. "We have many other cases when you can use the grammatical rules as a creative ‘game.’"

  • You have to have a complete understanding of Hungarian grammar in order to nail the precision and subtle inflection it requires to accurately convey your meaning.

If you’re up for the challenge, you can certainly expect that it’ll make you a more interesting and well-rounded person.

"[Hungarian] is very unique, creative and poetic," Zsedely said. "Learning it makes you uniquely special."

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