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December 2022 - Year 24 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

Growing Up

Péter Medgyes, CBE, is Professor Emeritus of Applied Linguistics and Language Pedagogy at Eötvös Loránd University Budapest. During his career he has been a schoolteacher, teacher trainer, vice president of IATEFL, vice rector, deputy state secretary, and ambassador of Hungary. He has been a plenary speaker in over fifty countries and is the author of numerous articles and books, His main professional interests lie in language policy, teacher education and humour research. Email:



The text was originally published at

I was born on August 6, 1945, the day when the nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Year after year, my birthday is made miserable by some grim reference in the morning papers to the calamity. ‘How will I be able to compensate for my unlucky date of birth when I grow up?’ I asked myself as a child.

By the time I reached nursery school age, communists had seized power in Hungary, nationalised ‘bourgeois’ property and banned all foreign languages other than Russian. Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to attend a private kindergarten run by Aunt Ida, where the language of instruction was half- Hungarian, half-English. It boggles the mind how she managed to stay private and, on top of that, to teach English, the language of ‘imperialists’. Be that as it may, it was there that I made my first acquaintance with Humpty Dumpty and others in the treasure trove of English nursery rhymes.

I never learnt English at school. Instead, my parents hired private English teachers for their two sons. The one I recall most distinctly was Privatdozent Dr. Koncz, who had lost his university job by being stigmatized as a relic of the old regime. He was a tall, bespectacled man in his fifties. He had a very low opinion of English, regarding it as an ersatz language, a primitive variety of German. When I rang the doorbell, his wife would come and open the door. As I sat down, I heard Dr. Koncz cleaning his teeth and then gargling in the adjacent bathroom. A minute later he would join me, always wearing the same old tie and grey cardigan. He would greet me with a firm handshake and a stern ‘How do you do?’ Learning English with him was not much fun; his facial muscles would tighten whenever he caught me not knowing something I was supposed to have learnt. The course-book we used was in sharp contrast to his gloomy character: Eckersley’s four-volume Essential English for Foreign Students (Eckersley, 1938-42) was full of jokes and light-hearted anecdotes. With hindsight, I owe Dr. Koncz a great deal of gratitude for the rigour and consistency with which he would inflict the Grammar-Translation Method on me.

Why English, I often wondered. After all, we were a family rooted in and surrounded by German language and culture. My grandmother’s mother-tongue was German and she never learnt to speak proper Hungarian. (Ironically, I could not learn German von Haus aus as she was stone-deaf.) My father, too, spent many an hour improving his broken command of German. I found a German vocabulary book even by his deathbed, as if this were his umbilical cord to life. And yet, my parents insisted that their two sons learn English before German, as England was their ideal of liberty and prosperity, and they were convinced that English was to become the language of the future. Hence I took my English lessons for granted. I must have been around ten years old when my elder brother decided to give up his piano lessons. I immediately wanted to follow suit whereupon my mother said, ‘All right, but only if you promise never to quit English.’ That was a deal.

Up to the regime change in 1989, learning Russian was compulsory for everyone between the ages of 10 and 18, and yet a mere 1.2 per cent of the Hungarian population claimed to speak it to any level. By the time I had reached secondary school, ‘western’ languages were gradually allowed back into the curriculum, so I could have chosen German, French or Italian as a second foreign language, but my parents sent me to a class which specialised in Latin and Russian. Latin, because my father belonged to a generation capable of reeling off the long list of Latin prepositions backwards and forwards, and Russian, because as a realist he knew that a good command of Russian was an asset in communist Hungary. Personally, I loved Russian, thanks to our young teacher, Mrs. Ganczer, who taught us to communicate in Russian at a time when Communicative Language Teaching was still waiting to be invented.


University years

Upon graduation from secondary school, I decided to study English and Russian at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. This made my mother cry, ‘You don’t want to become the slave of the nation, do you?’ implying that teaching was (and still is) one of the worst-paid professions in Hungary. I tried in vain to assure her that teaching was the last thing on my mind; my lofty goal was to become a ‘man of letters’ – whatever that meant.

It was at university that I met the first native English speaker in the flesh. An elderly language instructor recruited by the British Council, Miss Galton began her first tutorial by asking us which English-language newspapers we were in the habit of reading. When our group replied in chorus that it was the Morning Star, the daily of the British Communist Party (and the only English-language paper available on the news-stands), she was flabbergasted – and left Hungary after the first term. Her successors were far more open-minded and enjoyed the privilege of being pampered by the affection and, quite often, adulation that Hungarians felt was due to samples of the rare species of native-speakers.

Meanwhile, I had a pen-pal from Ireland, who kindly invited me to Dublin. Waving the official translation of the invitation letter, I went to the district military headquarters, as one had to in those days, to apply for permission to make the trip. Taking a quick glance at the letter, the officer said, ‘You wanna go to Dublin, eh? And you know where you gonna go? F…ing nowhere.’ So I stayed at home.

Foreign-language majors were obliged to do their school practice in the final year of their studies. Internship included a one-month practice period in a provincial town. I had to teach two groups of secondary-school students with a vast majority of girls, under the supervision of their regular teacher, Aunt Aliz. While the students’ eyes were glued on me, a strapping young man, Aunt Aliz would doze off in the back of the classroom as soon as I started the lesson, only to wake up for the bell. ‘Splendid!’ she said. ‘You’re a born teacher, Péter.’ Since the second part of my teaching practice at Radnóti School in Budapest turned out to be just as exhilarating, my fate was sealed. After graduation I was offered as many as seven jobs. This had much less to do with my excellence than with the fact that I happened to be a male in an overwhelmingly female profession, and that English from the late 1960s was more and more in demand. I accepted the job offer at Radnóti School.


Being a school teacher

Initially, I was teaching from the one and only mandatory course-book, written by Hungarian authors – and I found it deadly boring. A couple of years later, I supplemented the Hungarian book with all kinds of British material written by Candlin, Broughton, Alexander, O’Neill, Abbs and Freebairn, and many others. My pupils thoroughly enjoyed these books, thanks to the multiple pirate copies run off on their parents’ office photocopiers.

One day I was summoned by my school principal, Sándor Lukács. He said that my illegal use of foreign books had been brought to the attention of authorities in the Ministry of Education. My heart sank. Then he asked, ‘Do you find those British books any better than the Hungarian ones?’ I stammered that I did. ‘Well, you’re the professional, Péter,’ Lukács said. ‘It’s your responsibility to decide what’s best for your students.’ ‘But… but what about

the Ministry?’ I asked. ‘That’s my responsibility. I’ll deal with it if necessary,’ he answered. Thus unruffled under his protective wings, I chucked out the Hungarian books altogether and used the British materials only. From then on, I appreciated every minute of my professional freedom – and simultaneously carried the burden of responsibility this freedom entailed.

By the time I began my teaching career, the Grammar-Translation Method had fallen from favour in methodology books, even though it was widely adopted by classroom teachers (and still is, by the way). Jumping on the bandwagon, I mixed elements from both the Direct Method and the Audio-Lingual Method. Thus I would never open my mouth in Hungarian and would go to great lengths to explain the meaning of even the most abstract words through demonstration. Needless to say, this often led to misunderstanding. For example, as I was introducing the word ‘light’, I pointed to the ceiling light, which many students got wrong, thinking that what I actually meant was the ceiling itself.

At the same time, I was hooked on the four-step drill: stimulus ® response ® reinforcement ® second response. I even persuaded the principal to get a cutting-edge language lab installed in our school. It was a love-hate relationship: I loved the lab, while my students hated it because they were forced to sit in solitary cubicles and ‘drill and kill’ on the open-reel tape recorder for hours on end. And yet, they passed their exams with flying colours and, as an added value, I personally managed to automatise even the most difficult grammar structures through doing the drills together with the group. It was much later that I realised that every method has its pros and cons, but what really matters is not the method being applied but the teacher’s enthusiasm and professionalism.

I had been a teacher for four years before I visited an English-speaking country for the first time in my life. That British Council summer course for teachers of English in Newcastle was an unforgettable experience. I was suddenly faced with the harsh reality that my listening skills left a lot to be desired; no wonder, since radio broadcasts in English were jammed in Hungary until the 1980s. It was especially hard for me to understand an accent as thick as Geordie, spoken in the north-east of England. On my first day, I went for a walk in the city centre and lost my way. When I asked a local to show me the way back to the university campus, I could not make head or tail of his explanation. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, the guy just shrugged his shoulders and went on his way. A deadly experience!

I was in my late twenties when I was commissioned to write my first English course book, which was followed by several others designed for both primary and secondary students. To be fair, my work was not hindered by political dictates.  However, although I was never forced to include ‘politically correct’ content, I instinctively knew what not to include. The most serious objection of a political nature was raised by an editor who insisted that I delete the word ‘godfather’ from a text because of its ‘religious connotations’. More devastating was a comment that came from a native English-speaking reader: ‘The manuscript is perfect as it is, apart from the fact that it smacks of foreign authorship from the first letter to the last.’ So much for my writing skills…

My most successful book, Linda and the Greenies (Medgyes, 1984) was written for 8- to 10-year-olds. The story is about a teenage girl, who is kidnapped by cute little monsters living in the London sewage system to teach them English. I drew the inspiration from a book series, Kaleidoscope, written by Andrew Wright (1976). In fact, it was more than inspiration – I borrowed a lot of nursery rhymes, songs, tongue-twisters and riddles from Andrew’s brilliant work. When Linda and the Greenies came out with an accompanying set of six cassettes, a colleague I had never met before phoned to ask me whether I would be kind enough to copy the cassettes for him. I was about to slam down the receiver, but then I realized that I was no better than him when it came to illegal copying. So I reluctantly agreed to do it.

A master pirate himself, György Horlai was the most generous colleague I had ever met. In possession of a rich collection of English audio-materials which were unavailable in Hungary, he would copy anything for any colleague on his most up-to-date, open-reel tape recorders. However, personally I am far more grateful to him for his sense of judgment and justice. When I showed him the first draft of an article in which I dressed down the Communicative Approach, he just said: ‘It’s easier to destroy than to build something, huh?’ In shame, I went home and set about pointing out the positive aspects of the Communicative Approach, too. Balance redressed.

Even though Hungary became the ‘happiest barracks’ in the Soviet bloc in the 1980s, English teachers were still considered a suspicious lot. Typically, when I applied to the Ministry of Education with the idea of establishing an English teachers’ association, I was rejected out of hand. It took me a while to realize that my case was considerably weakened by the unfortunate choice of the acronym ATAK, which was the Hungarian acronym of English Teachers’ Association. It was only after the regime change in 1989 that we were given the green light to found IATEFL-Hungary. In our effort to establish the Hungarian branch of the Britain-based association, we were given tremendous encouragement and support from Alan Maley, who at the time was President of the mother institution. 


Being a university lecturer

To return to the early 1980s. After having taught at Radnóti School for fifteen years as a teacher, I could not resist the invitation to join the English Department of my alma mater as a teacher-trainer. I soon discovered, however, that the department was as conservative professionally as it was liberal politically. In the eyes of my colleagues, the phrase ‘teacher education’ was anathema. I shall never forget when a highly-respected professor of literature came up to me after a frustrating staff meeting and said: ‘You’re right, Péter. There’s no point in teaching methodology in just one course.’ As I beamed, he added, ‘So I’d bring down the number of courses to zero.’ The mantra in the English Department was that good teachers are born and not trained, and greenhorns pick up the tricks of trade as they go along in the classroom. Sadly, many scholars would query the justification for teacher education even in our day.

Nevertheless, the years I spent in the English Department were rewarding in the sense that I had far more time to engage in research activities than when I was a school teacher. The only snag was that, whereas our library was quite well-stocked with novels, poetry anthologies and theoretical books on literature and linguistics, not a single book on methodology or applied linguistics could be found on the shelves. The first book I bought at my own expense was Corder’s Introducing Applied Linguistics (1973) and indeed it was a fine introduction to what applied linguistics was all about. I assiduously typed out more than two hundred extracts from the book on index cards, and I resorted to the same painstaking procedure with all the books I could lay my hands on in subsequent years. I still cherish these cards even though many of the ideas put forward may since have lost their freshness. In addition to Corder, the authors from whom I learnt most were Krashen (1982), Stern (1983), Stevick (1990) and Widdowson (1978).

However, even the best failed to show me the bridge that would connect theoretical arguments to what was going on at the chalk-face. Although they succeeded in sparking my research interests and helped me absorb the academic jargon expected of someone planning to write a doctoral dissertation, I could not see the relevance of theory for the classroom teacher. Frankly, I still can’t. In my daily work as a teacher trainer, I found the

ideas and techniques generated by Maley and Duff (1978), Mortimer (1980), Rinvolucri (1984) or Wright (1976) far more relevant and stimulating.

Even though I kept complaining about the glaring deficiencies in my English-language competence (and in those of my fellow non-natives), I began to realize that this did not mean we were inferior as teachers. ‘How come? What gives us a competitive edge to offset our linguistic handicap?’ I asked myself. ‘Surely, this is only possible if we have certain attributes that native colleagues are lacking. OK, but what exactly are they?’ Seeking the answers to my questions, I browsed the shelves of our growing library but was unable to find a single reference to this issue.

‘If not in Budapest, then in Los Angeles,’ I thought to myself after receiving a Fulbright research grant for an academic year. To my astonishment, however, nor did the huge library of the University of Southern California contain anything worthwhile on the topic. ‘Wow, but then this must be terra incognita!’ I rejoiced. ‘It cries out for exploring!’ With the generous support of the renowned applied linguist, Robert B. Kaplan, the director of the American Language Institute at USC, I designed a questionnaire and, in collaboration with Thea Reves from Israel, circulated it amongst teachers, both natives and non-natives. I am proud to say that the questionnaire was filled in by a total of 325 respondents, which was quite a feat at a time when only snail-mail was available! I decided to process the data and write a book on the native/non-native conundrum as soon as I was back home again.

Easier said than done! By the time I returned to Hungary in 1989, communism was all but dead, and the Russian language ceased to be the mandatory foreign language in school education, whereupon thousands of parents demanded that their children study English or German instead of Russian. As there was an acute shortage of qualified teachers to teach these languages, a quick fix had to be found. One day, I was called by the Minister of Education to conceive and implement a retraining programme for Russian teachers and, simultaneously, launch a new fast-track pre-service training programme at colleges and universities. With this job completed, I was appointed as the founding director of the Centre for English Teacher Training (CETT) at Eötvös Loránd University. Our programme differed from traditional pre-service programmes not only in duration (three years instead of five), but also in that methodology and teaching practice were granted a much larger place in the curriculum.  But all of this left me no time to write that book!

Once the pioneering period was over, I carved out some time from my daily schedule to continue my investigation into the native/non-native issue. A 10-week-long scholarship at Lancaster University enabled me to complete a book-length manuscript, which I boldly submitted to one of the largest British publishing houses – and was turned down point-blank. I was devastated. Hearing about my aborted attempt, Susan Holden, who was the general editor and publisher at Macmillan, encouraged me to send her the manuscript. And, amazingly, the book was published a few months later and won the Duke of Edinburgh Book Prize the year after! If it had not been for Susan’s support, The Non-native Teacher (1994) might never have seen the light of day. (Incidentally, she helped bring out the second as well as the third edition of the book by two different publishers.) I am glad to say that since the first edition of the book, hundreds of papers and around a dozen books have been published on the subject.



In the 1990s, my professional routine was interrupted by two consecutive job offers, which I could not reasonably refuse. First I was appointed vice-president of my university and subsequently deputy-state secretary in the Ministry of Education; on both occasions I was mainly responsible for international affairs. Upon returning to CETT a few years later, I was saddened to see that, despite the remarkable achievements and international recognition the fast-track programme had achieved, it was being brought to an end. Once the problem of teacher shortage had eased, it was no longer thought to be vital to keep the programme alive.

Around the turn of the millennium, I was increasingly haunted by reminiscences of the years I had spent as a school teacher. With a gap of nearly twenty years, what if I asked to teach a group of 15-year-olds in the same school where I started my career? I wondered. With all the experience I have accumulated over the years, would I be able to cope with teenagers better than when I was a fledgling teacher? To cut a long story short, I did a stint of two years in the classroom, and although I occasionally had a hard time (especially when it came to maintaining discipline), it was a most rewarding experience. Once a teacher, forever a teacher.

I then had another chance to work in the Ministry of Education. In addition to my previous functions, my second term included implementing projects with the aim of rendering foreign language education more effective in Hungary. I successfully put on track a large-scale programme called World – Language, whose most essential component was the introduction of the Year of Intensive Language Learning (YILL). This programme made it possible for 15-year-olds to spend a full school-year focusing exclusively on foreign language study; needless to say, the overwhelming majority opted for English. I am glad to say that YILL is still up and running, and in fact has since widened its scope.

After a couple of years in the Ministry, I had the opportunity to try my hand at diplomacy, too. As Ambassador of Hungary in Damascus, on one occasion I volunteered to give a talk on teacher education to Syrian language teachers at their annual national conference. Although the audience politely applauded at the end of my presentation, I could not help feeling that I did not fit in: one cannot wear two hats at the same time.

When my term of office in Syria was over, I sneaked back to the university, where I felt comfortably on home turf again. A few years later, since age caught up with me, I retired. But I cannot stop teaching. For my own pleasure – and hopefully, for my students’ pleasure too.

Yes, I love teaching, but I am also fond of doing research and presenting at conferences at home and abroad. In addition, I am a grapho-maniac with a crop of 40 books and some 200 papers to my name. But what I love first and foremost is the English language. Whenever I decide to brush up my Russian, French or German, by default I reach out for an English newspaper, turn on an English TV channel or look up a new word in the dictionary. For me, English is far more than a means of earning a living or a tool of communication – it is my most loyal companion. For better or for worse, I am desperately in love with it.


The lessons I have learnt

As I was thinking about how to conclude this brief tour de force, a number of things came to my mind. Let me single out a few, which encapsulate the lessons I have drawn from my lengthy career as a teacher and teacher trainer, however unorthodox some of the ideas may appear to be. I suggest you give some thought to each of them, and then choose the ones you agree with. Should you disagree with any of them, all the better.

  • In many countries, teachers are as poorly paid as we in Hungary are – or perhaps even worse. Decide to become a teacher only if you are aware that becoming a millionaire is just wishful thinking.
  • Trust yourself! How else can you expect your students to put their faith in you?
  • Enjoy every (other) minute of what you are doing in the classroom! Bored teachers generate bored students.
  • Your own needs come first, your students’ needs come second! This may sound like an egocentric, teacher-centred attitude, but it is not. Your well-being is a necessary, albeit not sufficient, condition for your students to feel contented, too.
  • There is no such thing as the best method. It all depends on whatever suits you and your students. 
  • Every teacher needs to have a rest. The summer break being too short to replenish, go and find a non-teaching job after x number of years. If possible, go on (paid) sabbatical.
  • Should you feel completely burnt out, quit teaching. Better for you, better for your students. Hopefully, you will find your way back to the classroom one day.
  • Do not believe that academics are worth more than you are. Do not listen to the ‘professional’ advice of those who have never worked at the chalk-face full-time.
  • A high-level of language competence is more important than anything else; it is a make-or-break requirement. Therefore, non-native English teachers should go out of their way to improve their command of English.



Corder, S. P. (1973) Introducing Applied Linguistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin Education.

Eckersley, C. E. (1938-42) Essential English, Books 1-4.  London: Longman.

Krashen, S. D. (1982) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Maley, A. and A. Duff. (1978) Variations on a Theme. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Medgyes, P. (1984) Linda and the Greenies. Budapest: Tankönyvkiadó [Textbook Publishing].

Medgyes, P. (1994)  The Non-native Teacher. Basingstoke: Macmillan Publishers.

Mortimer, C. (1980) Dramatic Monologues for Listening Comprehension. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rinvolucri, M. (1984) Grammar Games. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stern, H. H. (1983) Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stevick, E. W. (1990) Humanism in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Widdowson, H. G. (1978) Teaching Language as Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wright, A. (1976) Kaleidoscope. London and Basingstoke: University of York / Macmillan Education.


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