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What I Learned From Studying My Family's Cultural Language

Studying My Family's Cultural Language Helped Me Appreciate My History More Than Ever

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Like many people, my background is a combination of cultures that all work together to make my family who we are. But the part of my heritage that I'm most proud of are my Hungarian roots. My grandfather was born in Hungary, and I've personally never met someone who was more proud of their culture. I grew up with the stories, food, and customs of the small European country through him. And I saw it first hand, too — as a manager for musicians, my grandparents' house was always filled with Hungarians who were playing concerts across the U.S.

Long story short, I am also very proud of my Hungarian roots, but there was still so much I didn't know about them. I'd learned some through my family, but I wanted to feel closer to my culture. So this past summer, I decided to enroll in an intensive Hungarian language course through Indiana University. Here's what I gained from a summer spent learning my family's mother tongue.

  1. I Learned More than Language.
    Learning the language put me in contact with valuable resources. My teachers and fellow students were eager to share what they pick up while studying, and it opened up my understanding of Hungary. Thus, my language class was not just a language class. We learned so much of Hungary's rich history — how the great kings of old brought tribes together, how the Austro-Hungarian Empire controlled a large portion of Europe, how Hungarian music influenced the country's development, and how Hungarian football skills revolutionized the sport. I even learned that the inventor of the Rubik's Cube is Hungarian. All details that enriched my understanding of the culture and the country.
  2. I Explored My Family History.
    My grandfather never fails to tell me a great story when he comes to visit. He talks about his childhood, the revolution, or immigration and adjusting to the U.S. As a non-Hungarian speaker, these stories were two-dimensional to me. They were interesting, but I couldn't connect to them. After learning the basics of the language, though, my grandfather emailed me some scanned letters from his mother had written to her friend in Hungary. I read what I could, and even that was enough to immerse me in his world. She wrote about her life in the U.S. and hanging onto their heritage and asked how their church was managing without her playing the organ. There are dozens of these letters that I continue to read, and they've deepened my connection to the stories my grandfather told. Understanding the language makes the stories I often hear more detailed — and more powerful.
  3. I Felt a Real Connection to My Culture.
    Learning the language helped me not only honor my family's culture but to live it. Taking the Hungarian class helped me feel more in tune with my grandfather and relatives. It gave me a chance to respect everything they did to pass down our family traditions. I now understand the value of music and dance to Hungarians, and the importance of gulyas and meals with gathered loved ones. Most importantly, I've learned to appreciate my culture and what it means to be a Hungarian.

I'm so glad I took time to learn about my family's language, and I'm so grateful I had the opportunity to dig deeper into our culture and history. My studies made it come alive and connected me to my history in a way stories just couldn't. Because culture is not just family roots — it connects us to the world around us.

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Image Source: Veronica Kuffel
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