How to Learn Hungarian – For Travelers

Hungarian is one of the hardest languages to learn. It’s a proven fact, though I am sure it depends on the student’s mother tongue. Although it is true that the Hungarian language doesn’t really resemble any other, which makes understanding the basics of the language more difficult for most people.

However, it is not impossible, and with a bit of practice, and an understanding of the basics, the language is not as daunting as it might seem.

Why Am I The Right Person To Offer Advice On Learning Hungarian

Hungarian is my mother tongue, and before moving to the US, I was a teacher of languages. Though my degree was in teaching Romanian (for natives) and English as a foreign language, I also ended up teaching Hungarian as native language, and French as a foreign language. In 1990 I also participated in a training program for Hungarian language teachers in Budapest.

Fast-forward thirty years, and I am teaching Hungarian once again. This time, I teach English-speaking adult students through HCAP, the Hungarian Cultural Association of Phoenix.

I didn’t have to make up my own curriculum though. Not fully, at least. Besides using a good and proved-to-work curriculum, I also noticed tips and tricks that worked for English-speaking adults who have never been exposed to the language. A few of these tips are perfect for travelers who visit Hungarian-speaking areas (not necessarily just Hungary).

Understanding Hungarian Sounds and Letters

Though most Hungarian sounds are similar to English, we have a few that are very different. Some of them might not even have anything that sounds close to them. These are harder to learn as adults. But not impossible.

The trickiest sounds to learn are:

  • ö and its long version, ő
  • ü and its long version, ű
  • gy
  • ny
  • ty

My recommendation for these is to listen and try to learn them from a native. Or you can learn from this video from the Hungarian Tutor.

Vowels with accents

The accents on the Hungarian vowels are more important than most people realize. In some cases, they denote different letters, and omitting them not only results in a different sound, but changes the meaning of a word completely. In other cases, accents could simply lengthen the vowel, resulting only in a spelling error. Understanding the difference between these could mean making a simple grammatical mistake or changing the meaning of the word.

The vowels that change are

  • a (pronounced like a in aww) and á (pronounced like a in baa)
  • e (pronounced like e in end) and é (pronounced like ai in hair)

Examples in how changing them might change the whole word:

alma = apple; álma = someone’s dream

merek = I dare; mérek = I measure (something)

Consonants expressed by two letters, or denoting sounds you would not expect

Many consonants that are different from what you expect or are used to.

  • cs sounds like ch in chocolate.
  • dzs is j in jeep
  • c is ts like in tsunami
  • j and ly are both y as in yoyo (which means gulyás is pronounced gouyash, definitely not goulash)

Accents, or Emphasis on the First Syllable

I noticed my students and many English-speaking adults pronouncing Hungarian words accentuating the second syllable, or some random syllable. In Hungarian, the rule is simple: each word gets the emphasis on the first syllable.

Word Formation in Hungarian

As opposed to English, where words are short and you need more of them to express an idea, the Hungarian language adds suffixes and prefixes, sometimes multiple ones, to express whole ideas in one word.

The Idea of Vowel Harmony

To make all these newly-formed words sound good, the Hungarian language uses something we call vowel harmony, based on the idea of front and back vowels. Hungarian, like a few other languages (including Spanish), classifies vowels into front and back vowels, according to the place we form them, in the back or the front of our tongue.

According to this,

  • the back vowels are: a, á, o, ó, u, ú
  • the front vowels are: e, é, i, í, ö, ő, ü, ű

Examples of words with back vowels: autó (car), ház (house), utca (street), tavasz (spring), nyár (summer), anya (mother), apa (father). You may notice that many of the basic Hungarian words have only back vowels.

Examples of words with front vowels: üveg (bottle), ősz(autumn), tél (winter), ember (person, man, human). Though not as many as back vowel words, basic, old Hungarian words have only front vowels.

Examples of words with mixed vowels: űrhajó (spaceship). Words with mixed vowels are relatively new in the Hungarian language.

When forming words, the suffixes added match the vowels in the base word. Hungarian has two forms for each suffix, using either a back or a front vowel, like -ban, -ben, (meaning in).

Examples: autóban (in the car), üvegben (in the bottle).


Because each word has a specific form depending on its meaning, Hungarian doesn’t need to be rigid in word placement in a sentence.

While in English we know if a noun is a subject or direct object according to its place in the sentence (subject if it’s before the verb, direct object if its after), in Hungarian the placement doesn’t change the meaning, as long as you use the word in its correct form (though you might end up with funny sentences, the meaning will stay the same).

Useful Hungarian Phrases and Sentences for Travelers

Now, that you have a general idea of how the language works, here are some useful phrases and sentences to use during your travels through Hungarian-speaking regions.


In Hungarian we use formal and informal greetings.

Informal greetings

might differ a bit by the region, though now you’ll hear the version mostly used in Hungary just about everywhere. And this is

  • Szia – used when you meet another person, a friend or someone your own age; equivalent of hi.
  • Sziasztok – is the plural version of the above, used when you greet a group of people
  • Szervusz – same as Szia, used mostly in Transylvania, though you will hear szia there just as much, especially with the younger generation.
  • Szervusztok – same as Sziasztok, used to greet a group of people.

You can use the same greetings for hello and goodbye.

Formal greetings

are used when meeting older people, or any adult you don’t know. Young people generally use informal greetings among each other even when they never met.

  • Jó reggelt. Jó reggelt kívánok. (Good morning.)
  • Jó napot. Jó napot kívánok. (Good morning/afternoon. It really means “good day”, used between late morning and late afternoon.)
  • Jó estét. Jó estét kívánok. (Good evening.)

You can use any of them with or without kívánok.Adding kívánokmakes the greeting more formal, shows a bit more respect.

Jó éjszakát – Good night is used in both formal and informal settings.

Viszontlátásra. or Viszlát. – Goodbye./See you later, where Viszlát is the shortened, informal version.

And there is one more type of greeting, used mostly by children towards adults, or for familiar but still formal greetings of older ladies, and that isCsókolom or Kezitcsókolom. It would translate into something like “kiss you” short for “kiss your hand”.

Meeting People – Introductions

In Hungarian we use last name first, when we introduce ourselves, or when we talk about someone.


– Szia, Egyed Réka vagyok. (Hello, I am Réka Egyed.)

Kiss Irén. Örülök. (Irén Kiss. Pleasure (to meet you))

Basic Words and Expressions

Igen. (Yes)

Nem. (No)

Talán. or Lehet. (maybe)

Bocsánat. (Excuse me)

Semmi baj. (No problem.)

Kérem. (Please)

Köszönöm. (thank you) or Köszönöm szépen. (thank you very much) or Kösz, köszi for the short, informal versions.

Szívesen. (you are welcome) or Nagyon szívesen. (you are most welcome)

Egészségedre! (To your health – Used as an answer to “thank you for the food” after a meal, as “cheers” when toasting, as “bless you” when someone sneezes)

Egészségünkre! (To our health – used as an answer when toasting. If egészségedre is used as an answer to a sneeze, you answer köszönöm)

Different Scenarios for Travelers

Asking for directions:

You are looking for the bus stop in Budapest. You stop a local for directions:

– Bocsánat, kérdezhetek valamit? (Excuse me, may I ask you something?)

– Hogyne, tessék. or Persze, tessék. or Igen, tessék. (all mean yes, of course)

Hol van a buszmegálló? (Where is the bus station?)

– Az első utcán térjen jobbra, ott rögtön meglátja. (Go right on the first street, and you’ll see it right away.)

– Köszönöm. (Thank you)

– Szívesen. ( you’ll welcome)

Instead of the bus station you can use this same sentence structure to ask for directions to a museum, a store, or an address.

Hol van a múzeum? (though you might need to specify which museum you are looking for)

After hol van you can add whatever you are looking for.

If you don’t understand what locals are saying:

If locals speak too fast and you don’t understand:

Lassabban, kérem. Nem értem. Csak egy kicsit beszélek magyarul. (Slower, please. I don’t understand. I only speak Hungarian a little.)

If you need them to switch to English, just say:

– Nem értem. Nem beszélek magyarul. (I don’t understand. I don’t speak Hungarian).

– Külföldi vagyok. Nem beszélek magyarul. (I am a foreigner. I don’t speak Hungarian.)

You’ll Find People Who Speak English if You Need to

If you are anywhere other than a tiny village in the middle of nowhere in either Hungary or Transylvania, everyone speaks at least some English. And they are proud of it, so they may offer to speak in English as soon as they realize you are a foreigner. They want to practice their English skills, too.

However, it’s nice to try to speak their language, if you can. You might find it easier to make friends, even if they speak fluent English, they will appreciate you trying.

Best Practices to Learn Hungarian – and Any Other Language

If you travel to any foreign country, it is a good idea to try to learn the local language, at least understand its basics. The practices to learn Hungarian are the same as those to learn any other new language.

Understand the structure of a language while learning new words

As a linguist and translator, I found that learning new words is helpful, and some people find it extremely rewarding. But it is even more important to understand the basic structure and grammar of the language. If you do that, learning new words, phrases, and sentences becomes easier; you can understand a lot more words without memorizing them.

Pace yourself and stay consistent

When you start learning a new language, pace yourself. Start with learning a few words, and try to understand basic grammar, then add to it gradually, don’t get burned out with too much information too soon.

Stay consistent. Find a habit and pace that works for you and stick to it.

Take every opportunity to get exposed to the new language

Use every opportunity to get exposed to the new language. One of my friends labeled things in her house in the language she wanted to teach her kids, so they could see it every day. You can also set your phone’s basic language to the new language you want to learn.

Make new friends with native speakers, and try your new language skills on them. And don’t worry about making mistakes. Natives and locals appreciate you trying and they will correct you without judging.

Join a class

But the best way to learn Hungarian or any other language is to join a class near you – or online. If you need to go beyond the basics, or want to be able to communicate with a native, you probably need to take a class. Local cultural associations might offer one. If you sing up to one of them, you not only learn the language, but also support the local Hungarian community.

We offer an online 14-week session at the Hungarian Cultural Association of Phoenix. Since you can access it from anywhere, you don’t have to be in Phoenix to participate.

Bonus: Here is a word game I created for my beginner’s class. If you feel like playing, enjoy.

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