8 Great Books for Learning Hungarian

When learning a new language like Hungarian, choosing the right materials is a crucial part of the decision making process. You could be the most motivated, passionate and enthused language learner in the world, but if you can’t get your hands on something to channel all that energy into, then you’ll probably quite quickly peter out.

When I decided to start studying Hungarian properly in the Summer, finding the right materials was my main priority. Since then I’ve come into contact with all sorts of different courses, textbooks, online resources, and teachers. However, it’s not always immediately obvious where to start looking for them, and as a result I’ve put together this review of all the different Hungarian resources that I know and can recommend. Different styles will appeal to different people, but my advice is to weigh everything up and see what will suit you best.

And so here is my list of 8 great books I can recommend:

colloquialhungarian1. Routledge’s Colloquial Hungarian

This was the first book I bought, as in the past I’ve used this series to jump straight into a new language and start playing around with it. Fortunately this didn’t disappoint! I used it to demonstrate some vocabulary learning techniques in this video and continued using it when I resumed Hungarian more recently.

I like the clear and consistent layout of the book. I like that the dialogues are pretty relevant (it even manages to product place a decent Budapest cab company that I now use). On the whole the basic grammar explanations are pretty admirable for a book this size, and I was left with very few question marks after using it. Plus some very kind person has taken the time to upload all the vocabulary, unit by unit, to this Memrise course for you to do.

However, as with all compact language learners, it leaves some pretty key vocab gaps which I had to fill in later, such as not teaching the correct way to ask for things in shops. As the grammar gets more complicated, you sometimes are left wishing there were more thorough explanations with more detailed exercises (Hungarian is pretty challenging at times!).

Overall this is a great introduction to Hungarian, and would be best used in conjunction with some of the other materials listed below…


2. magyarOK A1-A2 and A2+

I first came across this series when I met the authors at last year’s ExpoLingua show in Berlin. This is a brand new textbook series produced by the University of Pécs (which also runs one of the most respected Hungarian Summer schools). Currently there are two levels: A1-A2 and A2+, and a B1 book is expected to come out in 2016.

What’s so nice about using these books is that they’re so readable and accessible. They’re bright, have interesting articles, and are far more thorough than the Colloquial book in both grammar and vocabulary. They have nice reading exercises, and the audio files are all available online.

The independent learner, however, might get a little bit frustrated that a lot of these exercises are geared more towards groups than individuals. Nearly all the instructions are also given in Hungarian, which people can have different opinions about. You’re also unlikely to be able to find these in your local bookshop (even in Hungary) so ordering it via their website is probably your best bet, where both the coursebook and workbook are available for a snippet of the price of Colloquial.

hungariangrammarcarolrounds3. Hungarian: An Essential Grammar by Carol Rounds

I have a love/hate relationship with grammar books. I feel like I should love them, but mostly I end up hating them. Not so with this one though. I’m a big fan of the Routledge Essential Grammar series because they tell you exactly what you need to know as neatly and as concisely as possible.

It wasn’t always clear to me how to work with this book. I tried working through it systematically but found it to be more of a cure for insomnia than a way to learn Hungarian. But since I started using the other courses I’ve mentioned, I’ve found this is a really great reference to answer almost any questions I have and clear up any uncertainties about Hungarian grammar. I dip in and out of it when I need to, or when I’m suffering from jetlag.

This book will offer you explanations, but what it can’t do is make sure you learn the rules. For that particular task, you should probably take a look at something like…

26554-gyakorlo_magyar_nyelvtan_szojegyzekkel_szita_szilvia_gorbe_tamas-W_800x04. Gyakorló magyar nyelvtan / A Practical Hungarian Grammar

This was the first book I came across by the Akadémiai Kiadó, which is another local Hungarian publisher. They have actually produced a number of books for Hungarian learners in this series, including some others that are mentioned here. One of the co-authors, Szita Szilvia, also worked on the magyarOK series already mentioned.

This book is almost mind-bogglingly thorough. No stone is left unturned as it takes you through every single possible conjugation of every different type of verb with clearly laid out examples, attractive formatting and just the right amount of exercises (and answer keys). It also drops in some pretty useful vocabulary for you to pick up along the way. So far this book is unrivalled in the way it takes you through Hungarian grammar, and succeeds in making it stick.

But if you work through this book systematically, you’d be forgiven if after the first forty pages (when you’re still conjugating different types of present tense verbs) you start to lose the will to live. This is a lot of information to take on at once, and so as a result I use it to complement what I’m doing with my teacher on iTalki or whatever I read in Carol Rounds’s book.

joszorakozast-bookcover5. Jó szórakozást magyarul!

This is also a new book produced here in Hungary designed for intermediate (B1-B2) learners. Its main focus is learning Hungarian through fun and simple reading exercises, which is one of my favourite ways to learn a language.

This is still a little too advanced for me to take full advantage of, but what I’ve used of it so far has been really enjoyable and engaging. Reading in Hungarian feels like such a big achievement! I especially like the carefully crafted comprehension exercises that follow each text, and use techniques such as synonym finders, true or false tasks and more descriptive writing activities to build vocabulary and increase your understanding.

I’m generally really happy to see this book put together by local authors and published by a very small publishing house. I haven’t seen it in any bookshops yet, though, so the best way to order it is via their website. Mine came very quickly with no problems at all!

25796-egy_szo_mint_szaz_magyar_angol_tematikus_szokincstar-W_800x06. 1 szó mint 100

I bought this book by accident because I was in a hurry and thought it was Szó ami szó. I was quite hopeful for it though, because like Gyakorló magyar nyelvtan it’s produced by the Akadémiai Kiadó, who’d impressed me so far. However, this book and I never really hit it off. I like vocabulary books and have used them in other languages, but this one has a few things going wrong with it.

There is a lot of information on each page. The only way I could work with this book is as a source of input for learning vocabulary, but that would have to happen separately. A lot of space is also dedicated to phrases using the vocabulary, which is a pretty good idea. But unfortunately most of the phrases seem very specific and not entirely useful. After a few attempts with this, unfortunately I had to give it up.

usa_hungar_30007. Hungarian Vocabulary for English Speakers

This book is a lot less chaotic in its layout and what it sets out to do, but I still think there’s something quite unappealing about it. Perhaps its just me, but mass-produced language books don’t really excite me that much. Accuse me of judging a book by its cover, but that wasp-like black and yellow design doesn’t exactly scream “come and study!” to me either.

The T&P series has arrived on the scene relatively recently and proudly offers similar books to this in 36 different languages, all absolutely identical to each other apart from the target language. This struck me as a fairly mechanical and prescriptive way to learn vocabulary, and as a result this also sits pretty unopened on my shelf. But this might just be my learning style, as I always find that when I come across words in a context they stick more in my mind.

If you’ve tried learning languages like this before and have found it to work, then there’s no reason why this book wouldn’t work for you in Hungarian. Tell me if anyone ever makes a Memrise list out of this, and I’ll give it another go.

26882-szo_ami_szo_maruszki_judit-W_800x08. Szó, ami szó

I think idioms are one of the best parts of learning a new language. They tell you so much about a culture and a history, and memorising them is also a great way to solidify some vagrant grammar constructions you might not quite have come to terms with yet.

Szó, ami szó is an idiomatic dictionary put together by our friends the Akadémiai Kiadó. Unfortunately I can’t tell you much more about it for the time being, because I’ve had problems tracking it down and my copy hasn’t arrived yet. I have, however, had several very warm recommendations about it from people whose judgement I really value.

I will update this article in the next week with some of my thoughts on it.

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