But I Don't Speak the Language

by Donna Przecha
You have just leapt "The Pond" in your research, having found that a grandparent or great-grandparent is not only from a foreign country, but one whose language you do not know. Don't think that your personal research has ended and you must employ a professional. Even though you don't know a word of the applicable foreign language, it isn't that difficult to do research in French, German, Swedish, Spanish, Italian, Polish, etc.

My boss recently asked me to help her with her genealogy. I always like a new challenge and especially enjoy the beginning research of a family tree, so I eagerly agreed. I have worked with American, English, Irish, Canadian, African-American, French, German, Polish and Eastern European Jewish research, but must confess I did utter a small cry of dismay when she said her father was of Hungarian descent. Not only Hungarian, but from a village that is now in Romania! However, I was not discouraged because I have found there are basic approaches to most research which work with most American and European records.

Ancestral Village

The first essential step is locating the village the ancestor came from. A detailed account of how to do this is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that this information almost always comes from a U.S. source — either family papers, letters, photographs or public records such as Social Security applications, ships' passengers' lists, censuses (rarely), death certificates, obituaries, etc. When you do find a village name, you need to keep in mind that it may be misspelled, the spelling may have been correct at the time but has since changed or the immigrant used the name of a larger town nearby rather than the exact village. Please take a look at the immigrant research lessons available at this Web site.


With or without a village, the first step should always be the IGI and Ancestral File. You might get lucky and find work already done. While your ancestor probably won't be there, you may find the surname which will give valuable clues as to the region where the name is found. If you don't look, you might want to kick yourself several months down the road if you find the information was already in FamilySearch!

My look in the IGI told me that the surname, which I had never heard, was fairly common in Hungary, but I found nothing from the village I sought.

Gazetteers and Maps

When you have located the correct village, you need to familiarize yourself with it. A good place to start is a detailed map and a good gazetteer which will probably be your first "foreign language" book. Since a gazetteer is primarily a list of location names, it should be fairly easy to use.

Your local Family History Center is a good place to start in locating the materials that you need. In 1986, the Family History Library compiled a list of 100 frequently used reference sources. The list was updated in 1988 and a second list was added in 1989. The microfiche collections were offered to all Family History Centers at a very reasonable cost so many centers have these sets. These include many detailed gazetteers and postal guides for European countries. My local center had a gazetteer which listed present and former Hungarian towns and included the German, Hungarian and Romanian names. Since so many European villages were under the rule of more than one country and used more than one language in the course of time, it is important to have all versions of the name. The Family History Library Catalog (FHLC) is a good source of variant names, as it lists towns for which the library has records under all names and countries by which they have been known. However, the catalog only includes places for which they have records, not all towns.

A gazetteer will list a village by name and give some information about its size and what larger political division covers it. It may also list the churches, the nearest railroad and other helpful information. A detailed map makes it easy to locate the surrounding villages where records might also be found.

Since the spelling that came down through the family may not be correct, you will probably have to learn about several villages. Because English does not use accent marks, we tend to consider them unimportant and ignore them. You cannot do this because, in many cases, what to us is an accented letter is actually considered a different letter entirely in a foreign language. For example, an e with an accent may be a completely different letter from a plain e. So, if you are looking for a town beginning with "Kéb" it may come after a town beginning "Kez."

Hungarian has nine accented letters that are considered different letters and appear in a different place in the alphabet. It also has seven combinations which are considered separate letters — "gy," "sz" and "ty" to name a few. A gazetteer written for Americans may ignore these differences but one written in the native language may have a completely different alphabetical list of names. The use of accented letters and combinations occurs in the majority of European languages, not just Hungarian.

World Wide Web

A ramble through the World Wide Web has the potential of turning up all sorts of helpful information, but there is no consistency as to what type of information might be posted. Just using a search engine won't dig out all the little hidden gems. You have to go to sites the search engine turns up, then follow links to other sites. (Be sure to bookmark as you go as you will soon forget how you got there!)

In the case of Hungary, I found a complete program called KIUT that listed all villages in Hungary, Slovakia and parts of Romania and printed maps using any of these languages. The program was in Hungarian, Romanian and German, but one kind soul (Tibor Majlath) had actually posted 17 pages of detailed instructions in English on how to install and run the program, which is written in Hungarian. Following these instructions, it is actually possible to install and run the program in Hungarian! This was a rare find for this area.


It is also important to learn about the history of the area. You may find that although your ancestors were Hungarian, they lived in a area that had been settled by Germans and the population was largely German. You may also find that with changing borders you will need to look in the archives of more than one country. For example, many parish records from towns in the Gdansk area of Poland are in the archives in Augsburg, Germany. You may also learn that people who emigrated from this particular area usually went via Hamburg or Rotterdam or Liverpool. You may learn about areas with names you had never heard before — Galicia, Banat, Sub-Carpathian Ukraine, Transylvania, Ruthenia — not to mention the many kingdoms, duchies, etc. of Germany, Italy, France and Spain.

Many special-interest organizations and researchers have posted detailed area information on the Internet. This is a great timesaver, because you would need to read many books in a university library to find this knowledge yourself. In most cases you can also subscribe to lists that specialize in your area. I have found that lists can be extremely helpful and you can meet some very knowledgeable people on-line who can provide information and guidance you won't find in any library.

Be sure to look for lists that are specific. For example, a list devoted just to the Banat will likely be more helpful than one covering a broader area such as Eastern Europe. Similarly, one specializing in Alsace will probably be more productive than one for France or Europe. Some small areas have very active lists whereas others may have almost no traffic. Subscribe for a while and post a question or two and you may be surprised at what you learn. I am constantly amazed at the number of very smart people who seem to read lists on a daily basis and are always willing to respond to simple or complex questions. Lists of lists can be found at and as a category under the geographical area on Cyndi's List at

Research Guides and Word Lists

The Family History Library has Research Guides to many foreign countries and they are well worth the small cost. A guide lists the basic records so that you can immediately become aware of records that are unique to your particular country. Most Family History Centers have paper copies of these guides. These guides are also available on CD-ROM, called Family History SourceGuide (see

The Library also produces word lists for many foreign countries (also on the SourceGuide). A list gives you the essential words relating to genealogy — mother, father, baptized, town, etc. Many European villages have nearby village by the same name, but preceded by "Upper" or "Lower" — for example, lower is "unter" in German, "bas" in French and "also" in Hungarian. In a gazetteer, a village may only be listed under its main name and by looking for one of the above descriptive words you will miss it. From a word list you can learn these descriptive words and be able to identify the significant part of a village name.

Foreign Records

Once you have the spelling figured out and have identified the village, there is a very good chance that the Family History Library actually has parish records from this village and you can order the film through your local Family History Center.

Armed with a word list, reading the local records is actually not that difficult. If you are looking at parish records, you will soon be able to identify the words for baptized, married and buried to get you to the correct books. If different types of records are mixed in one book, you will be able to pick out the record type by recognizing significant words such as date, name, mother, father, godparent, buried, bride, groom, etc. Some parish records are arranged in columns so you only need to identify the heading in the columns. You also do not have to read each record. You will be looking for a certain surname and you can skip over those that don't apply. If you are looking at civil registration records, they will probably use a standard format or printed form so it is easy to identify the location on the record where you need to look for the names.


Handwriting can be a bigger problem than foreign words. Reading some old English wills can be more difficult than French vital records on pre-printed forms or German parish records arranged in neat columns. However, with a little practice you can decipher it. Pick out the words you can read and note how the particular letters are formed. Once you can identify unusual letters or combinations, then you can begin to decipher other words.

There are some handbooks which help you to identify different scripts. German handwriting can be extremely difficult, but with a little practice and help from handbooks, you will be able to make out enough words and names to find the records that apply to your family. After you have found the records and have translated the significant parts, you might want to turn them over to a translator for the parts you cannot understand. Some church records include extra important information such as names of surviving family members or cause of death.

Once you begin to be able to read the foreign records, it is a good idea to continue working with them and not put them aside for later research. The ability to recognize the words will leave you quite quickly, and if you let this new skill lie dormant for a while, you will have to go through the whole painful process from the beginning.

Information by Mail

Writing to the local parish church might bring results, although older records may have been transferred to a central archive. When writing, be sure to enclose an addressed envelope and two international reply coupons (available at any post office) to prepay the reply. (U.S. stamps are useless in a foreign country.) Postage is expensive and you probably won't receive an answer unless you pay for return postage. If you are going to do a lot of writing you might see if you can buy foreign stamps through an organization dedicated to genealogy in that area. While you should not send large amounts of money through the mail, note that a small check can cost more than it is worth to be changed into local money. Instead, a U.S. $5.00 bill may bring very good results, as this can be exchanged more easily.

Professional Researchers

After you have identified the village and found pertinent church and vital records, you might find it worthwhile to employ a professional researcher for further in-depth work. Once you go beyond standard vital and parish records, you will probably become involved in books, wills and other documents that contain a lot more text rather than fill-in forms or columns. Then an understanding of grammar and different meanings of words becomes significant and a simple word list will not be sufficient. However, you will have saved a lot of money by doing the basic research and will be able to spend your funds on more significant research.

I prefer to send out specific, small requests initially. If you give researchers free rein, they might spend time looking at records you have already looked at or don't even want examined. After a couple of specific requests, you will have a better idea of how productive this resource might be and how competent your researcher is. If you initially authorize a large amount of money, they might use it up examining every possible record even though it seems pretty obvious there is nothing relevant there.

For example, if parish records are not available at the Family History Library, you might authorize a search of one parish for the years 1830-1850 looking for the birth of Johann Muller, then deaths between 1830 and 1860 for Georg Muller or all Muller marriages between 1820 and 1850 with a maximum cost specified. Be sure to request a list of all sources checked. Even if nothing was found, you will know not to look (or pay to have someone look) at these sources again in the future.

Go Ahead — Make the Leap!

There is no set of rules on exactly how to proceed with European research. Each area is different and will require different techniques. If you learn the history of the area, remember that spelling isn't always exact, get a word list and look at the available records, you will probably go further than you ever imagined even though you "don't know the language."

About the Author
I began genealogy in 1970 when we were living in Ogden, Utah for a short time. I was immediately hooked when, on my first visit to the local Family History Center, I found my great-grandparents in the 1850 Ohio census. I have been researching ever since on my own family and for others. I soon recognized the value of computer programs for keeping track of the data. I was a founding member of the Computer Genealogy Society of San Diego and editor of the newsletter. I have written a third party manual on ROOTS III and, with Joan Lowrey, authored two guides to genealogy software. Using ROOTS III and WordPerfect, I have written several family history books for others, but have yet to stop researching long enough to complete my own family history!

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