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Top 5 Things That Make Mongolian Difficult To Learn

Have you ever wondered what the Mongolian language is like?  What linguistic features does it have?  What other languages is it related too? And the question many ask, ‘is Mongolian difficult to learn?’. You have perhaps seen some articles about the hardest languages that put Mongolian on the list next to Mandarin Chinese or Arabic.  So why is it so hard? The answer is not so simple.  But we have tried to break it down.  Learning a language will always be a different experience depending on what your native language is. For example, Mongolian grammar is more difficult for a native English speaker than for Korean speakers because Korean and Mongolian have the same sentence structure (Subject-Object-Verb). On another note, when it comes to pronunciation, most learners will find it quite difficult. I’ve been teaching the Mongolian language for more than 10 years and these are what I have found to be the 5 most difficult aspects of Mongolian language:

5. Listening Comprehension

Not many people learn Mongolian, and Mongolians are not used to hearing a non-native speaker’s accent.  Which can cause problems for both parties involved. In the West, and other Anglosphere countries, speakers are used to hearing broken English all the time.  As a result, they have developed a hearing mechanism, just as many Arabic speakers may have grown up listening to their language being spoken from all over different far-flung parts of the Arabic world and likewise have developed Modern Standard Arabic as a linguistic bridge linking regional and international dialects.

In Latin America, citizens are used to all sorts of visitors, travelers, and business types arriving in their countries speaking wildly varying levels of the Spanish language, and are thus accustomed to hearing and indeed responding with a lower, more comprehensible level of Spanish for the non-native listener. 

Mongolians do not have these experiences and built up background knowledge which would allow them to make it easier for a non-native listener. As such, they may ramble on to a beginner as though they were talking to someone who has been speaking all their life!  In addition, one of the most common complaints from Mongolian language learners is the excessive amount of mumbling which makes distinguishing sounds and individual words quite difficult. These problems compounded can make it quite difficult to understand spoken Mongolian.  

4. Lack of Resources

Compared to other widely spoken languages, there are only around 5 million Mongolian speakers in the entire world and non-native speakers interested in learning are quite rare.  Fittingly, there are not many resources available that you can use to learn on your own.

Mongolian books and other sources such as television and newspapers are far too difficult for people who are just starting to learn.  Even children’s books are written in a formal language which won’t help the learner much. The field of learning Mongolian as a foreign language is very nascent and not nearly as developed as other popular languages such as English, Chinese, or Arabic, which all have a long history of proliferation and scholarship. 

Audio and video files for learning are quite hard to come by, while Mongolian language materials and instructional books are just beginning to be published in the past couple of decades; though this is changing. Not many online classes are available and very few schools provide Skype lessons. Finally, proficient Mongolian teachers are very rare.

The average Mongolian person (just as the average citizen of most countries) will have a difficult time explaining the intricacies of their language’s grammar and pronunciation to you since they have never learned it as a foreign language themselves.  Despite all this, there are a few schools in Ulaanbaatar with high-quality instruction as global interest in Mongolian Studies widens.    

3. Sentence Structure

The Mongolian language is one of the members of the Altaic language family, which gets its name from the Altai Mountains in the heart of central Asia.

The sentence structure is very different than Indo-European languages which makes it difficult for native English speakers. Whereas in English the basic sentence order is Subject-Verb-Object (He eats apples), Mongolian language is the opposite: Subject-Object-Verb (He apples eats). 

No matter how short or long a sentence is, the last word will always be the verb.  Moreover, this phenomenon causes difficulty when it comes to listening. You might hear a subject first and be waiting for a verb to follow. While waiting, other objects in between may have already come and gone, confusing you further.

 

2. Cases and Suffixes

One of the most unusual and frustrating elements of Mongolian language is the linguistically dreaded cases. As mentioned previously, the Mongolian language is in the Altaic language family. That means it has agglutinative morphology in which a variety of suffixes are added to a word, changing its meaning. For example, найзуудтайгаа means ‘with my friends’.  Seems simple right? Well let’s break this down:  найз means friend, ууд is plural, тай is the comititive case (‘with’), and finally, гаа is possessive (the reflexive case).     Remember that all these need to be formed with proper vowel harmony! Yanaa.

In addition to the usual cases, there are a staggering array of other suffixes that can be added.  These can form some pretty interesting and incredibly long words. Take for example Цахилгаан, which is electricity.  This seems basic. Now let’s add a suffix and watch the agglutination in action Цахилгаан+жуул = Цахилгаанжуул.  We now have a ‘new’ word, which is a verb, to electrify.  What if we want to make it a noun? +aлт = Цахилгаанжуулалт (the act of electrifying).  This can go on and on until we end up with Цахилгаанжуулалтыхантайгаа which is a real word roughly translating to: ‘with the act of electrifying’s people’.  

Here are 7 different main cases with their English equivalents  –ын –ийн (of, belonging to), -д, -т (for, at, to, location), -аас/-ээс/-оос/-өөс (from, out of), -ыг, -ийг –г (specific object), -аар, -ээр, -оор, -өөр (by means of, using), -тай, -тэй, -той (with, together), -руу, -рүү, -луу, -лүү (to, towards).  To learn more about Mongolian Cases go to the main article: Mongolian Cases.  

1. Pronunciation

Undoubtedly the most difficult aspect of Mongolian is its pronunciation. There are many sounds that are difficult to pronounce such as guttural sounds like gh, kh, r, l, especially when the consonants come together in a word like bayrlalaa (thank you) and oilgohgui baina ‘I don’t understand’.  Some of these sounds don’t even exist in any other language!  Additionally, there are a variety of very similar vowels for the English letters O and U which sound completely the same to non-native speakers. For example, 

од (ɔd)- star and өд (od)- feather,  

ус (ʊss) water and үс (uss)-hair. 

Furthermore, to confuse the learner, even more, many sounds can even be dropped entirely to make it easier for the speaker.  Though this does happen in many languages, it does much more so in Mongolian. For example, the phrase ‘Yu gesen ug we?’ (What does that mean?) can be shortened to a startling 3 syllable utterance ‘yugsugi?!’    

Final Words

In sum, learning Mongolian can be a struggle.  It bears little resemblance to most other languages, due to its placement in the isolated and controversial Altaic Language family.  There are few resources for learning since the subject is just recently developing and gaining a wider interest.  But we at Nomiin Ger are here to help.  One of our goals is to create the most comprehensive collection of free Mongolian Language resources on the internet.  Hopefully in the future people all around the world will begin to use these aides and students can begin to say, ‘Learning Mongolian is actually not that hard!’  In the mean time, get started by accessing some of our free lessons, guides, and quizzes. Good luck learning!  Aмжилт хүсье!

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