Growing Up Hungarian in Vienna

Since the launch of the Hungarian-German bilingual elementary school in 2019, Viennese parents can give their children an authentic 'magyar' learning experience.

Austria and Hungary are divided by languages but connected by a swathe of bilingual speakers crossing borders. Hungarian immigrants, first, second, and even third generation, are usually motivated to practice – or learn – the language that links them to their grandparents, cousins and cultural roots. “Weekend schools” and evening classes to teach Hungarian children language and literature have been around for a long time.

But just last year, the first bilingual school of the postwar era opened in Vienna. One plus one equals more than two: Bilingual schooling fosters appreciation for cultural pluralism and gets children used to what is called code-switching between the languages. The children learn in the content and language integrated learning programme (CLIL), meaning that language is not only taught as a subject, but as an instrument to teach the curriculum.

“This is a dream we’ve had for a long time,” said Ildikó Nick, a Hungarian teacher at Bunte Schule in the 18th district, “and the municipality was willing to fund it. But sadly [at first], we did not have enough students applying.”

So, they started talking with parents at the Saturday school, addressing worries about the integration of children at a bilingual school. Some feared that their children would be confused, and wanted to be sure “they should first speak German properly.”

Enikő, a longtime Austrian resident, had reservations about enrolling her 7-year-old daughter, Lili. “We didn’t want to overwhelm her,” she says. But when she heard that in Burgenland such bilingual education has been around for a long time and children flourished, she was persuaded. Once in the program, she was further reassured as she watched Lili’s rapid development. “And she is witty in both languages!” grinned Enikő.

In the end, parents were convinced that simultaneous language acquisition is possible and integration need not come at the expense of one’s own cultural heritage and language.

An Asset & a Liability

The parents’ concerns were hardly surprising. Even though bilingualism is considered an asset in many cases, it is viewed as a liability in others, with the prestige of the language playing a significant role, writes linguist Rudolf de Cillia in Sprachen der Welt – Sprachen in Österreich (Languages of the World – Languages in Austria). For pupils with English or French as their first language in Austria, it is considered a plus, whereas “immigrant languages” such as Turkish, Serbian or Hungarian far less so, wrote the Slovak academic Claudia Stubler in her essay Mehrsprachigkeit in Österreich – Chance oder Barriere? (Multilingualism in Austria – Opportunity or Barrier?) The educational potential of these pupils is largely ignored, writes Stubler, because of the “monolingual habitus” that sees bilingualism as an obstacle, rather than a resource.

Unfortunately, if socialization takes place exclusively or predominantly in the second, host language, the development in the first language stops with the start of school – a lost opportunity for both the individual and society.

Multilingual children are often particularly flexible and responsive language users, and there are many Viennese children from Hungary who speak more than two languages. Eleven-year-old Tilda has lived in Vienna for six years and studies at the Lycée Français de Vienne; her home language is Hungarian and is taking weekly classes at the cultural institution Collegium Hungaricum. She is learning German as a third language and practices it at lunchtime with friends. Her stepsister, Liza, moved to Vienna from Budapest less than a year ago and has been attending a bilingual German-English school. “I wanted to express myself right away, so I just started talking,” says Liza. “My classmates correct me when I make a mistake, that’s been very helpful.”

As for the first accredited Hungarian bilingual school in Vienna, education in two languages is guaranteed for the first four years for now, but Nick and her colleagues are hoping gradually to extend it all the way to Matura, the end of high school. The future of the language immersion program depends on financing – and, ultimately, on demand.

“We are hoping that this will not be only a transitional phase for the children,” says Nick. “We would love to see them reach their full linguistic, social and cultural potential.”

Jusztina Barna
Jusztina Barna attended a bilingual English-Hungarian high school where her love for literature and linguistics was planted, further sprouting once she gained an English degree. In Vienna since 2016, she also studied German and Business Management and is currently preoccupied with the human side of technology and digital exclusion.

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