My name is Thomas Sulmon, I am a 30 year old language lover from Belgium. I’ve lived in Budapest for four years and I actually work here as a French translator and voiceover artist. I have three YouTube channels, each one representing my three biggest passions in life: languages, poetry, and singing. This article is divided into an interview on how I learned Hungarian in record time and 4 tips on how to learn any language through immersion.
Which languages do you speak?
It’s never easy to answer that question, because a lot of people’s definition of “speaking fluently” varies. If by speaking we mean being able to have a conversation with someone, I would say six languages: French, English, Russian, Hungarian, Dutch and German. I’ve also dabbled in other languages which I’ve picked up during my travels around Europe, such as Bulgarian, Czech and Turkish.
Thomas’ Love for Languages (and Hungarian!)
How did you get interested in language learning and what made you fall in love with Hungarian?
I’ve always felt a yearning for languages and as a Belgian, I had to learn Dutch pretty early on in my life. I believe this helped me get accustomed to learning new sounds pretty quickly. In addition to that, growing up, I was fascinated by the fact that you could learn languages from the comforts of your own home. Then, you could take what you’ve learned and communicate with someone living halfway across the world. Impressive!
The high school I went to specialized in humanities. Therefore, I had six years of Ancient Greek and Latin studies, which gave me a firm understanding of etymology and the function of declensions.
When I was 16, I got involved in a student exchange program with a school in Moscow. From the moment my feet touched Russian soil, I fell in love with the Russian language. This infatuation eventually pushed me to learn the language in-depth during my time at university.
As a result, I came back to Brussels and did my bachelors in translation, specializing in Russian and German. After that I decided to take my year-long sabbatical in Vienna to improve my German, but also to use this opportunity as a basis for exploring central Europe. I didn’t know much about this region of Europe, so I spent the majority of my time visiting a handful of countries: Slovakia, Czech Republic, Slovenia and Hungary. It was Budapest that left an undeniable impression from the get-go.
Among the plethora of reasons for my natural inclination towards Budapest was this inexplicable feeling of lost glory surrounding the city. To clarify, you have these gorgeous, colossal buildings which are evidence that the country was once an economical and political powerhouse, However, modernism has threaded its way between these relics and now, Budapest is seen as more of an affordable, party-city.
Coming from a small town, I was shocked by the sheer size and massiveness of Budapest compared to the likes of Bratislava or Zagreb, both of which are fairly small but charming. It was unexpected and impressive.
Finally, there’s the language, which frankly lured me in the first time my ears were exposed to it. These weird “sz” or “gy” combinations and the various “zik” and “eknek” endings made it sound (and look) like an alien language to me. It was unlike anything I had ever encountered before. It triggered something in me, I had to learn it! I just wasn’t sure how or when I was going to get a chance to do that.
I went back to Belgium and got my master's in political science. Afterwards I went to Russia for an internship in Saint Petersburg, which lasted for three months. Upon its completion, I moved to Prague where I worked for a Russian company. Growing a bit lost and frustrated with my role, I wanted to go back to my first love - language learning.
My heart still longed for Hungarian and I knew that due to the complexity of the language, the only way I could reach a proper level of fluency would be to move to the country. I decided to join as many social media groups as possible related to Hungary and then one day, entirely by chance, I saw a post on my feed advertising a fully paid scholarship in Budapest to learn Hungarian for one year.
The deadline to apply for the scholarship was only two weeks away. I scrambled to get all of the necessary paperwork and documentation. Luckily, I managed to get everything submitted on time and then to my disappointment, I was put on a waiting list. Fortunately, I wouldn’t have to wait too long, because someone dropped out of the program and in the middle of September (2019), I got the phone call that if I was still interested, I had to come to Budapest ASAP. It was a no-brainer for me and that’s where my life changed - forever.
What specifically attracted you to Hungarian more than other languages?
I can break it down into three main reasons:
The combinations of vowel-consonant-vowel-consonant makes it flow nicely and at least to me, the very long and open vowels stand out.
Hungarian, unlike French, is very open to new words. You can easily form new words by adding on suffixes to existing words. For example, you can add “-zik” at the end of any word to make it a verb! This allows any Hungarian speakers to unleash their imagination in very creative ways. You can see it clearly in Hungarian literature, where authors use this little “hack” to its full potential.
Speaking Hungarian often feels like putting lego blocks together. The prefixes, suffixes and endings are very predictable, and if you don’t know a word, you can simply deconstruct it to get its meaning. Take for example the word “elfelejthetetlen”: “elefelejt” means (to forget), “-hete” means (to be able to), “-tlen” (negation). So what do you get? You guessed it - “unforgettable”!
On top of all that, the challenge involved in learning Hungarian was enticing. It looked completely different from most European languages and I had heard some polyglots claim it was almost impossible to attain a good level without years (and years) of practice. For whatever reason, I was compelled to prove them wrong.
The Pros and Cons of Intensive In-Country Programs
If everything was in Hungarian, how did you survive at the very beginning?
It was daunting at first, but since this was a language school, everything was geared towards complete beginners. Our teachers were very understanding and constantly encouraged us to speak as much as possible, even if we made plenty of mistakes.
The first advantage is obvious: exposure to the language 24/7. This not only maximizes your time, but it also saves you lots of money if you consider the expense of having to hire a private tutor. However, the biggest advantage is that you need to use the language to communicate with locals, especially if you’re going anywhere outside of Budapest, where English is rarely spoken.
As far as the cons are concerned, it can get extremely stressful and overwhelming if you don’t have the proper mindset. It’s important to let go of the things you can’t understand right away, because your goal should be to focus on one thing at a time.
Relationships and Languages: The Secret to Fluency
Beyond immersion, I can say with full confidence that I wouldn’t have achieved my current level in Hungarian had it not been for my girlfriend. She’s actually Turkish, but the only language that we had in common was Hungarian.
Every single day, in and out of the classroom, I was forced to use Hungarian. This made both of us use very specific and practical vocabulary, but even more importantly, it established an emotional connection to the language. Think about learning a language within the context of a relationship.
“Darling, do you need something from the store?”
“Are you sure you locked the door?”
These phrases and sayings became a lot more relevant than anything I could have learned from a textbook.
Being that Hungarian was so different from any other language I spoke, constructing sentences in real time was like finding your way through a labyrinth. But I kept on moving forward and as I made progress, all of the obstacles in my path were turned into opportunities.
Based on your experience, any tips for learning a language faster?
TIP 1: Stay Relaxed
My first tip would be to stay relaxed, find a way to manage your stress. When you are bombarded with input all of the time, it can get overwhelming quicker than you might realize. After my classes, I wanted to use Hungarian in a relaxing manner. Nothing too serious, just some basic activities with very low stakes.
For example, I would read a lot of mangas in Hungarian, play GTA V in Hungarian (this helped a lot with my slang), watch Disney movies and listen to podcasts in Hungarian as well. I did all of this without trying to understand everything.
TIP 2: Jot Down Everything
My second tip is to write everything down in one place and have it all in one file (or one journal, if you’re Luca). I have a Google Doc that is currently 400 pages long, but it’s all there. Everything I have learned for the past four years is in that document and whenever I need something, I just have to press “ctrl+f” to find it. I shared that Document with Luca and he was very impressed!
TIP 3: Always Rely on Context
Here is an example: the verb “kiállni” in Hungarian means “to stand, endure (something).” Now, out of context, I would be pretty hesitant to use that word without knowing what it exactly entails. But underneath it, I wrote a simple sentence I heard once that makes it crystal clear: “Ki nem állhatom a gulyáslevest” (I can’t stand/hate goulash). Based on that example, I can confidently use this idiomatic expression (and the verb) with native speakers!
TIP 4: Create a System for Review
Finally, the fourth tip is to use an application which allows you to revisit the knowledge you’ve acquired and collected in the Doc. You don’t want to “set it and forget it,” so I recommend using a SRS like ANKI to use bits and pieces of your language every day. This prevents my active knowledge from atrophying into passive knowledge.
Next language (or challenge) that awaits?
There are a few languages I’m eager to learn.
I’ve delayed the first one for long enough, but it’ll be only the second romance language (outside of my native French) that I’ve learned: Spanish. Also, somewhere down the road, I’d like to learn Polish.
However, I did have a very intense experience with Icelandic recently. It was a bit unexpected, but once again, it proved to be completely worth it.
From Intensive Hungarian to Intensive Icelandic?
I was playing with the idea of learning Icelandic for some time. Its enchanting sonority always reminded me of the Elvish tongue in Tolkien’s works, and reading some of the Icelandic sagas made me even more interested in the culture surrounding it. But the main problem was - as it is for most people - time.
With a full-time job and countless side projects, I could not realistically start from scratch and expect any kind of decent results before months and months of effort. Also, in the case of Icelandic, I may have been slightly more interested in the actual country rather than the language! So, I made up my mind. If I was going to learn Icelandic, it would be in Iceland and nowhere else - period.
An intensive in-country course, c’mon! I was lucky enough to find out about the Summer Course organized by the Arni Magnusson Institute shortly before the application deadline, and after some basic learning, I passed the entrance test and was accepted into the program.
I couldn’t have dreamed of a better introduction to Icelandic. Not only did we have very intensive language classes every day (which was all I hoped for), we also had classes about literature, history, music, geology etc. the whole package!
Also, the planets must have aligned, because during the month I was visiting (July 2023), we experienced a live volcanic eruption only 40 km south of Reykjavik!
This rare and breathtaking phenomenon cannot be described with words. Simply witnessing the magma dancing and moving in the volcanic crater, only a few kilometers away from us, was one of the most vivid and scenic things I had ever laid my eyes on. A true demonstration of nature’s brutality. After this course, I passed an A2 test in Icelandic, and recently, I even received a grant from the Icelandic Literature Center to translate a book into French.
Best possible use of a month's time I could ever think of! 😃