Making connections in a new multilingual and multicultural setting is truly important. They might fade away before we know it as languages and cultures sometimes have a way of drifting us apart, but if you are truly and genuinely lucky, they turn out to be lasting ones. Júlia from Hungary, a visiting PhD student in the field of theoretical linguistics and syntax at the University of Massachusetts, was one of the first people I met on my first day here in the US as we shared a hotel room in Miami during the gateway orientation. I think it was intentional that two linguists were put in the same room and we immediately hit it off talking about Budapest where I had been the year before. Linguistics was just there to reinforce the connection. When time came to say our goodbyes, I promised Júlia I would cook her borsch, Russia’s national dish, when she came to visit a few months later. Preparing Russian food and generally staying in touch with the home cuisine turned out to be more challenging than I had been thinking. Anyway, that was while enjoying our borsch at a Russian restaurant in New York four months later during our long-awaited reunion that we sat down with Júlia to talk about the role of English in her life and her feelings towards linguistics in general. Her vibrant and lively personality and what she calls “a signature Hungarian laughter” made the process all the more enjoyable.
It was only at high school that Júlia, who was growing up in a Hungarian village, embarked on learning English. It was a bit earlier that her interest to the language started. Once her parents took her to a house of the teacher who was giving private English classes to her older brother and sister. The girl was given one of a few English books to read and that was one by Shakespeare. Of course, she couldn’t read it back then, but that was the beginning of something big. Unfortunately, getting to learn English was “a bit of a story” as only German was being taught at her school at the time. After Júlia’s family moved to what she now calls her hometown, she went to a humanities high school where her class was divided into two parts (for German and English respectively). Júlia ended up in the English class but had to go back to learning German as the pre-intermediate level of English was required to get started. That wasn’t enjoyable as with the German class she had to learn everything from scratch. As it was “a heavily language-oriented school”, both dominant and second foreign languages were given a lot of attention. The issue was that it was only after getting a certificate in the dominant language (German for Júlia) that she could get extra hours for English. She wasn’t willing to do that. It was during her second year at high school that she met a teacher who kept giving Júlia private classes after taking a maternity leave a bit later. According to Júlia, she is the one to be given credit for most of the English skills the girl had got.
At the end of high school, Júlia was considering becoming a doctor but then she had to change her mind and once after taking an online quiz she thought doing an English major was what she should be after. They were studying Blake, Keats, and Shelley at Literature classes at the time, and of course her love for Shakespeare was still there. Both with German and English, Júlia found herself really enjoying grammar and the way it structured knowledge. She didn’t know much about what exactly linguistics was, but she decided to get into the English degree and started preparing for the entrance exams, which involved learning about the English literature, culture, and history.
She is now specializing in generative grammar, the term first used by Noam Chomsky, one of the most prominent figures in modern linguistics, in the 1950s. According to his universal grammar theory, all languages have the same structure and being able to learn a language is biological and genetic just as hearing, recognizing colors, etc. Most of the research in the field has been conducted in and for English and a lot of effort has to be made to study other languages as well to find out more about the universal grammar. Júlia’s PhD thesis deals with pied-piping, i.e. movement of syntactic elements (e.g., if someone says “I met two nice people yesterday”, one can ask them “Who did you meet yesterday?”, etc.). There are certain restrictions to the phenomena in different languages and Júlia is working on identifying how that works in Hungarian.
In this Eastern European country more and more people these days are trying to learn English. According to Júlia, her younger brother, who is 15, speaks better English than her 25-year-older brother. Following the re-evaluation of the language program in Hungary, French and Italian as well as Russian, Japanese or Chinese were offered at schools mostly in the capital. Júlia is absolutely in love with English and wouldn’t really want to engage in studying any other language. Sometimes she finds herself being capable of expressing “more refined feelings” in English than she does in Hungarian. She wouldn’t say she feels like a different person as that would be sort of “a schizophrenic feeling”, but she does agree that perceptions of other people might vary as they switch from one language to another. Júlia reminisces that back at university they had a teacher who they thought was homosexual based on how high-pitched his voice sounded in Hungarian, but once he started a class for the first time and switched to English, the overall impression of his personality changed dramatically. I had a chance to hear Júlia speak Hungarian, the language that I remember being totally clueless to read when I was in Budapest, while she was staying at my place. Then we switched and I had her listening to me speaking Russian. Those games linguists play! I have to admit I had a feeling there was another person sitting next to me and then the vibrant Júlia was back the moment she switched to English.
Finally, Júlia’s advice to anyone beyond “the critical age” (the first few years of life) trying to learn a new language is to simply enjoy the process and not to make it about perfection. Instead one must try to get their message across not stressing about pronunciation and any sort of mistakes. My “roomie” certainly knows what she is going on about, and I wish her all the best with finishing her PhD and I am sure her findings will enrich language classrooms and individual learners no matter where and how old they are.