The Hungarians like to boast that their language ranks with Japanese and Arabic as among the world’s most difficult tongues to learn. All languages are hard for non-native speakers to master, but it is true: Hungarian is very-very hard to learn to speak well. This should not put you off attempting a few words and phrases, however.
The Hungarian language, Magyar, has long been one of the country’s greatest obstacles and continues to be as many business and tour websites, especially for smaller cities and villages, are in Magyar only.
The problem is that Magyar is a complex and unusual language - it originated on the eastern side of the Ural Mountains, and along with Finnish and Estonian, it’s one of Europe’s few representatives of the Finno-Urgic family of languages.
Hungarian is full of what the French called faux amis – "false friends" or misleading homophones that have the same sound but totally different meanings. Thus in Hungarian test is not a quiz but "body", fog is "tooth", comb is "thigh" and part is "shore". Fatál – admittedly with an accent – just means "wooden plate" and is a popular Budapest restaurant, and Apáthy is a less-than-enthusiastic family name. Ifjúság, pronounced (very roughly) "if you shag", means "youth"; sajt (pronounced somewhat like "shite"), as in every visiting Briton’s favourite sajtburger, means "cheese".
For assorted reasons – the compulsory study of Russian in all schools until the late 1980s being one of them – Hungarians are not polyglots and even when they do have a smattering of a foreign language, they lack experience and are generally hesitant to speak it.
Attempt a few words in magyarul (Hungarian), and they will be impressed, take it as a compliment and be extremely encouraging.
The best foreign language for getting around with here was always German; historical ties, geographical proximity and the fact that it was the preferred language of the literati until almost the 20th century have given it almost semi-official status.
But with the advent of the Internet and the frequency of travel, most young people now have at least a smattering of English while older people speak German. If you are desperate to make yourself understood in English, look for someone under the age of 35.
For obvious reasons, Russian is best avoided; there seems to be almost a national paranoia about speaking it, and many people revel in how little they know "despite all those years in class". Italian is understood more and more in Hungary because of tourism. French and Spanish are virtually useless.
Fortunately for the modern-day traveler, and for Hungary’s ascension into the E.U., many young people have taken their foreign language studies more seriously. Many young people speak English and most people in tourism venues do to some extent.
Do not be daunted if you attempt some polite words and find you are faced with a confused Hungarian staring at you. The difference between an o and ó can change the meaning of the word, and the Magyar people are so unaccustomed to hearing strangers attempt their language, they get a bit befuddled with mistakes.
At the least, try to learn the polite words and stick with them.