On Thanksgiving weekend, I gave a presentation on diaspora research and Hungarian language maintenance efforts at the annual Hungarian Congress in Cleveland, Ohio. On Thanksgiving weekend?–you may ask with surprise. The event was launched in 1961 by Hungarian immigrant and refugee intellectuals for whom Thanksgiving had not yet become an established family holiday, and at the same time, the four-day weekend provided an opportunity to come together. Over the last 50 years, the Congress has served as a forum for research related to Hungarian studies with a focus on the humanities and social sciences, particularly culture, language instruction, history, sociology, political science, ethnography, and history of science, and has attracted visitors and contributors from virtually every Hungarian community in the world. The presentations draw upon a range of perspectives and methodologies and are often interdisciplinary in nature. Topics related to the Hungarian diaspora around the world have been of main interest. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, attention to such gatherings increased sharply. The first democratically elected President of Hungary, Árpád Göncz, paid tribute to the Congress in a special declaration in 1992, and last year’s keynote speaker was János Martonyi, currently Hungary’s foreign minister.
This year’s invited speaker was Dr. Pál Hatos, Director of the Balassi Bálint Institute, “an institution which is able to perform all the duties related to the preservation, development, presentation, spreading and research of the Hungarian language and culture, and which unifies the … system of institutions of Hungarology” (www.bbi.hu), established in 2002 by Hungary’s Ministry of Education. Congressman Dennis Kucinich, one of the Honorary Principal Patrons, personally addressed the participants.
My presentation focused on Hungarian maintenance efforts that vary depending on geographic location and political and cultural environment; these factors strongly influence the minority experience. To be sure, each group, especially if they live in different countries and thus in different cultural and linguistic embeddings, faces its own set of challenges. A comparison of some of these communities and their specific maintenance methods and success rates, as well as consultations with fellow educators and language instructors, have been very beneficial, even for my own student recruitment. One point we discussed after the talk in particular was the question of whether an ethnic entity can survive as such after language loss. As a lecturer in Hungarian, I have students with diverse profiles and backgrounds, among them heritage learners and speakers with a wide range of knowledge, including basically zero. Even in the latter case, i.e., in the complete absence of linguistic fluency, many students still have fairly strong ties to the old culture, an indication of a certain success in maintenance, based on the perpetuation of community practices, traditions, shared knowledge, rituals, and family memories. These, coupled with the rise of personal curiosity and the development of identity by college age, indeed often serve as strong-enough forces of motivation to enter heritage language instruction.
One of the most inspiring parts of the conference was a lively three-hour-long roundtable on language policy issues and language and identity maintenance in the diaspora. It has become clear that the scattered communities’ and Hungary’s dependence on one another for cultural and linguistic pursuits and networking is mutual. Dr. Hatos explained that, contrary to frequent misperceptions, and following long decades of Cold War isolation, Hungary is just as eager to utilize the extensive experience of Hungarians living abroad, often from the third or fourth generation, as are these heritage speakers and learners to receive support for their efforts in maintenance from the country of their predecessors.