A Hungarian Citizenship Journey

On the 8th March 1911, a 5-year old boy called Pál and his mother, Rozália, boarded the Saxonia at Fiume headed to New York. Pál’s father, Ferenc had emigrated to America a couple of years earlier and was now working as a coal miner in Vintondale, Pennsylvania and had saved up so that his wife and child could join him in America.

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A Hungarian Citizenship Journey

When Pál arrived in Vintondale, much would have been familiar to him. Many if not most of his neighbours would have been Hungarians, the usual mixture of Tóths, Molnárs and Kovács. But in addition, there would also have been a mixture of Slovaks, Poles, and Italians and it was in that environment that Pál would grow up to be an American playing baseball and throwing a knuckleball that would dance in the air.

As time passed, the connections the family had with Hungary faded. Names changed. Pál became Paul, Rozália became Rose and Ferenc became Frank. When Pál himself had a family and whilst Ferenc and Rozália were still alive, the children would still learn Hungarian in order to speak with their grandparents. But after Ferenc and Rozália had passed away, it no longer seemed necessary and the younger ones never did.

All of that would probably just have remained a matter of family history were it not for the decision of the British people to leave the EU in 2016. Both my wife and I were living in the UK but regularly working in Europe and loss of freedom of movement would significantly impact us both. In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, it seemed that everyone we knew except us would retain their EU nationality by virtue of having an Irish grandparent. It was not until a chance meeting with a Canadian friend of Hungarian descent that we discovered that despite my wife’s grandfather having lost his Hungarian nationality by virtue of naturalizing as an American, Angela was still eligible to acquire Hungarian nationality through simplified Hungarian naturalization and that if she did so, I, as the spouse of a Hungarian citizen, would also be eligible. The only hurdle to doing so would be acquiring the required level of Hungarian.

How hard was it going to be to learn Hungarian? What level of Hungarian were we going to need? How long would that take? Those were the three questions which we then wanted to answer and now having completed the process of becoming Hungarian citizens, we now appreciate that all three questions are largely irrelevant.

Hungarian is often considered one of the more difficult languages for English speakers to learn due to its complex grammar, unique vocabulary, and limited resemblance to other European languages. Hungarian is not an Indo-European language. The majority of everyday Hungarian words that you encounter are entirely unlike their corresponding English counterparts and Hungarian grammar is entirely foreign. However, it is very easy to overplay the difficulties of learning Hungarian. It may be the case that according to the FSI, American diplomats require more time to learn Hungarian than other European languages before being posted abroad, but that is only really reflective of the efforts required to speak and understand Hungarian at a very high level. It is not reflective of the effort required for simplified naturalization. More importantly, the fact that it might be easier to learn French or German was not going to be at all relevant to the Hungarian authorities who would expect us to speak Hungarian.

That then turns to the question of what level of Hungarian is actually needed. Most European countries, express the level of language required for acquiring citizenship in terms of the Common European Language Framework of Reference (CEFR). But Hungary is an exception. Instead, various official websites merely describe the required standard as being ”an intermediate level” or at ”a sufficient level, to be able to present the application [for naturalization] without external assistance, and to answer … questions … independently, in short sentences.” Noting that ”communication in dialect or broken communication is not a problem.”

The lack of a fixed CEFR language level can actually be easily explained. The primary purpose of the Hungarian naturalization law introduced in 2011 was to provide a route for ethnic Hungarians living in: Romania (primarily Transylvania), Slovakia, Serbia (primarily Vojvodina) and Ukraine whose ancestors lost Hungarian citizenship as a result of the peace treaty ending World War I to acquire Hungarian citizenship if they so wished. In that respect the new law has been incredibly successful with over a million individuals choosing to become Hungarian. The vast majority (c. 98%) of such applicants are native Hungarian speakers, the language abilities of whom can easily be confirmed through a brief interview or telephone call.

That having been said, there is somewhat of a consensus in Europe about the level of language required for a non-native speaker to become a citizen. Countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland and the UK all require applicants for citizenship to pass a language test at the B1 level, whereas Portugal sets the standard at the A2 level. From my experience, if pushed, I would say that Hungary’s requirements are similar, being around the B1 level, but are perhaps a little easier as questions that the authorities ask tend to be focussed around the details of the application — family background and reasons for becoming Hungarian — rather than being more broadly based as can be the case with some language tests.

Finally, that leaves the question of how long it might take to reach that level? To which the answer is, how long is a piece of string? As with all language learning, the speed with which you learn a language depends upon the time and effort which can be spent learning. If you spend the time and focus your efforts, reaching the required standard can be achieved relatively quickly, with my wife acquiring the required level of Hungarian in around 9 months, whilst still having to fit in her language learning around working full-time as a lawyer. I was able to devote less time to language learning due to other commitments, so it took longer for me to achieve the required level of Hungarian — but nonetheless, I was able to do so within a couple of years.

So, if none of our initial questions were that important, what is?

Given the differences between English and Hungarian, and particularly the importance of distinguishing long and short vowel sounds, it is practically impossible to learn to speak Hungarian in a comprehensible manner without the assistance of native language speakers.

There I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the right language teachers and indeed we were very fortunate to work with Renáta and her team at Hungarian Language Solutions who helped us on our Hungarian journey. All of the teachers at Hungarian Language Solutions are excellent. Not only are they incredibly supportive in assisting you with language learning, they are also very experienced in supporting you through the entire application process, as collectively they have been responsible for a significant number of Hungarian learners’ applications for Hungarian citizenship under the simplified naturalization process. That experience enables them to tailor how they teach Hungarian to ensure that students are confident in handling the kinds of questions which are most likely to arise in consular interviews and in telephone calls from the naturalization department.

It is thanks to Renáta and her team that Angela and I have both been successful in our efforts and have both become Hungarian citizens. I am sure that Ferenc, Rozália and Pál would all have been proud.

Nicholas & Angela Fox