Throw these expectations away!
Embarking on the adventure of learning a new language can be one of the most thrilling, demanding, joyful, hellacious, yet fascinating challenges one can undertake. Every language has its challenges, its rewards and its peculiarities. Especially a relatively unknown language like Mongolian, which has few elements in common with most dialects you are likely to be familiar with. Whereas a native French speaker may have an advantage in learning Spanish or a native English speaker the benefit and expectation that German will have similarities, most learners of Mongolian do not have that luxury. What is Mongolian related to? Is it a Sinitic language? Is it a Slavic language? Does it follow similar grammar rules to Spanish or Italian? What can you expect?
We have already covered some of the difficulties of Mongolian in our “Five things that makes Mongolian difficult to learn” guide. However, now we need to address something a bit different. Expectations can set someone up for disappointment, and discourage them from progressing in the language learning journey, but Nomiin Ger doesn’t want you to go through that! In the following guide, we would like to point out some expectations you should have for learning Mongolian, and others that you should throw away! If you head into the experience of Mongolian language learning with reasonable, realistic, and informed expectations, we are sure that you will save tons of headaches and have the upper-hand over many others!
1/2. Expect Written Language to be different than Spoken Language
Really there are two main things to point out here:
1-First is the different diction (words) that are used in written and formally spoken language.
2-Second is the pronunciation or squeezing and shortening of spoken words.
Like all other languages, Mongolian has many different ways to express concepts, feelings, objects, etc. Written language tends to be a bit more difficult in Mongolian, because written Mongolian generally goes through a process of romanticization, or formalization. This is done in order to make the written words or phrases (or even spoken words based off writing) sound poetic, charismatic, and at times downright bombastic. If you have ever listened to a Mongolian give a speech or a toast at a party, you know exactly what we are talking about. Maybe we could consider this royal dialect, or however you want to categorize it. Thus Mongolians, tend to write and speak in this royal way when it comes to formal speaking (giving a speech) at an official meeting, any type of official gathering, TV news reports, radio reports etc. as well as writing simple essays, letters, and virtually any type of written document. Yet on the other hand, spoken language (casual conversation) is much more simple and the vocabulary is indeed different. This less formal speak, is the language that you will become more familiar with while you are learning Mongolian.
Here are some examples:
⇒’Ta gaihaltai haragdaj bain!‘ (Та гайхалтай харагдаж байна) ‘You look amazing!’
In casual conversations, nobody talks like that. If a friend for whatever reason did use this kind of language, they would probably receive a dismissive groan or perhaps ‘Who do you think you are Queen Manduxai the wise? Jeez.’ Or, ‘Surtei yum be!’, which by the way, is a very good phrase to know.
Instead they may say something like:
⇒“Chi yostoi goy haragdjin” (чи гоё харагдаж байна) which means, ‘You look nice’.
Perhaps in English this would be the difference between, ‘You look great!’ and ‘You look positively splendid’.
And here are a few words that only appear in written language, whether in an official document or a children’s book. This is unfortunately one of the reasons why trying to read children’s books at a novice level (something so helpful in learning most foreign languages), can prove to be difficult. Some examples:
хэмээн (гэж), боловч (ч гэсэн), бий/буй (байгаа), бүхий (-тай), явав (явсан), болон (бас)
The second part of this is you definitely should not expect what is written to be pronounced as such. Once you realize this, it can be a major breakthrough for your Mongolian language. I have seen even my best students take a while to come to this realization. Essentially most words and phrases become shortened or ‘squeezed together’, and one good rule to remember is that when speaking using present continuous (V+ж байна), the ‘б’ is never spoken. Here are some examples:
3. Native Mongolian speakers don't necessarily make good teachers.
‘I teach Mongolian language to foreigners.’
‘Oh so you teach English.’
Do not expect the average Mongolian to be able to teach you their language! As mentioned, Mongolian is not a widely spoken language around the world. Mongolians themselves only recently hit a population of a bit over 3 million (not including inner Mongolia). Additionally, expats/travelers who visit or live in Mongolia, let alone learn the language, are few and far between, especially compared to learners and visitors of Spanish or English speaking countries. Foreigners who can actually speak Mongolian are the rare, and special few, including you, once you take the plunge and start taking lessons at Nomiin Ger. Due to this lack of foreign speakers, the vast majority of Mongolians have never heard a foreigner speak their language (although this is changing). Most Mongolians are not even aware of the concept of foreigners learning to speak Mongolian.
Having been a Mongolian language teacher for many years, I’ve gotten used to the common chats with other Mongolians, which go something along these lines:
‘What do you do?’
‘I teach Mongolian language to foreigners.’
‘Oh so you teach English.’
‘No I teach Mongolian.’
‘You teach English.’
‘No I teach Mongolian language, our language, to people from other countries, who are not Mongolian, because they want to learn our language, the Mongolian language. I do not teach English.’
After some quizzical looks they may sometimes understand the concept, but not understand why foreigners would want to learn their language, as in their mind it ‘isn’t useful’. However, most likely their eyes will light up at the idea of foreigners being interested in Mongolian language. And inevitably the next step in their train of thought is, ‘I can teach Mongolian too!’. Indeed many foreigners, students, expats, etc. have been faced with Mongolian friends and coworkers who are utterly incredulous as to why they would actually hire and pay money for language lessons! ‘Why would you hire someone! I can teach you for free!’ Of course this rarely works. The main reason being:
Just because they speak Mongolian, does not mean they can teach well. Ask yourself, if you are a native speaker of English, ‘What are the 10 modal verbs?’, or, ‘What is the difference between the second conditional and the third conditional’. Most likely you won’t be able to answer these questions because you never learned them yourself! You may know what sounds correct, but you may not know why. Likewise ask an average Mongolian about the different question particles their language has; something which is crucial for learners. Most won’t know why Сайхан амарсан уу? (Did you rest well?) has the particle ‘уу’ but Таны нэр хэн бэ? (What is your name?) has the particle ‘бэ’; and why would they? They never learned their own language from scratch, just as no native speaker of any language learned the intricacies of their language as a child, they merely absorbed it. Although many Mongolians may be able to do some simple translations for you, the only real way to progress is with a trained teacher; the more experience they have, the better.
This is not to say that Mongolians know nothing of their own language! We are all blind when it comes to our native language. Just remember not to expect to learn much from your coworker or friend at the pub who offers you ‘free lessons’.
4. DO NOT Expect locals to understand you right away. Even if your teacher does.
So you’ve taken the leap and started learning Mongolian at a school or with tutor. You may have learned quite a lot after a few months, or maybe even a few weeks. Now you can actually have a full conversation with your teacher because you’ve practiced speaking a lot, and you are making great improvements. You talk to your teacher about all kinds of things: how your day was, how the weather is, what you might like to buy at the super market etc. You are feeling quite confident, and rightfully so! You have made a lot of progress, great job!
Feeling confident, you walk out of your apartment in UB and down Peace Avenue into your local delguur to get some essentials. You enter the store and ask the staff attendant where you can get some milk and eggs: a simple sentence: ‘Uuchlaarai, undug bas suu xaana baina?’ She stares at you like you are from a different planet. She clearly doesn’t understand. You repeat the simple question slowly in a good accent. Still nothing. Yooiee! You pronounced everything correctly! What’s the problem?
This is very common and can be very, very frustrating at first. But don’t worry! We can get around this with some time and practice. Although your teacher is very comfortable understanding not only your, but other students’ foreign Mongolian accents, most Mongolians are not at all. For them, foreigners speaking Mongolian is a very new concept. They have only ever heard Mongolians speaking Mongolian, and only one dialect as well. As soon as they see your face (especially Westerners), they automatically assume either you will speak English and/or they will not understand you. With this expectation in mind, they certainly won’t be able to respond (if they even try at all). Some might even ignore you entirely.
In the West, and other English speaking countries, speakers are used to hearing broken English all the time. As a result, they have developed a hearing mechanism for this. They are used to meeting foreigners and hearing all sorts of varieties of English. Mongolians do not have these experiences and built up background knowledge, which would allow them to interpret Mongolian that is a bit different than what they are used to hearing. You may be speaking perfectly and they still won’t understand!
It is indeed frustrating, but there are ways around this. One of the best ways to combat this problem is to approach someone and interact a bit first. For example, if you approach a storekeeper and say ‘Za sain uu?’ They will likely give a response ‘Sain. Sain.’, which is quite easy for them. What this really does though, is it allows their mind time to get ready for someone to speak something a bit different. Now that they know you are about to speak to them in Mongolian, they will be a bit more focused and will likely understand what you say.
5.Expect to see lots of Russian Loan Words
All languages use loan words. There is nothing new under the sun. In English we use tons of loan words from all over the world including French, Latin, and even Arabic words on a daily basis: bouquet, encore are French; per diem, vice versa, Latin; biology, encyclopedia, telescope, Greek; algebra (الجبر), alcohol (الكحل), giraffe (زرافة) all Arabic. We even use a couple of Mongolian words! Can you guess them? Hover over the box on the right to find out (horde, hurray).
In the past many loan words in Mongolian were China, due to its proximity and interactions/conflicts with the Chinese, quick examples including:
carrot = лууван/luuvan = 萝卜/luóbo, and of course the national dumpling buuz is 包子/bāozi
However, nowadays, due to Russian influence during the Soviet time, when Mongolia was a ‘Soviet Satellite State’ (1921-1990) and in fact the second communist country in the world, many Russian (European or sometimes rooted from Greek/Latin) words have entered the Mongolian language, especially science and technical words. Also, like English nowadays, Russian was the most spoken foreign language of that time. Here are some Russian loan words you can expect to see often in Mongolia:
Бензин gas, petrol