So you want to learn Mongolian or you are thinking of dipping your feet into it. That’s great, but there are some things you should know before you get started so you don’t become disappointed down the road. There’s nothing worse than starting something and giving up part way through. Whether you are wanting to learn some simple phrases, understand Mongolian grammar or learn to write old Mongolian Script, Mongolian can be seen as a daunting language for beginners that are native English speakers and associated languages.
You may have heard before that Mongolian can be hard, but to answer why it is is a little more complicated and there isn’t a straightforward answer that is necessarily available. As a native English speaker who has been learning Mongolian for the past 4 years and experienced these issues first hand, and talking with other Mongolians, here are some important facts to know why Mongolian is a hard language to learn:
Fact 1: Listening Comprehension – Colloquial Language
When I first started to learn Mongolian I thought this isn’t actually too difficult, why do people say it is hard? After a few months trying to put into practice what I had learned, I started to realise how difficult it is to actually listen to Mongolians speak and for Mongolians to listen to me speak. Mongolian is part of the Altaic Language family which is isolated from other language families, which means it doesn’t have a lot of similarities to other languages outside of languages in this family. This is especially the case for English which couldn’t be any further separated from Mongolian, which is spoken by over 5 million people worldwide.
The reality of what you learn in a classroom listening to your Mongolian native language teacher speak slowly and clearly is very different to hearing, and conversing with a native Mongolain on the street. Let me put it this way, when you speak English with another fluent language speaker you will generally speak colloquial language, dropping sounds and merging letters and sounds together. This makes it hard for non-native English speakers to understand what is being spoken. In Mongolian this is no different, expect that unlike English where there is more exposure and understanding to non-native speakers and guttal English, Mongolians are less aware. Not many forgieners speak or even want to learn Mongolian. So when a Mongolian hears a beginner Mongolian learner try to have a conversation with them, they will forget, and speak to them as if they had been born and raised in Mongolia.
Colloquial language can really be a challenge to beginners and even advanced learners can struggle with this as it feels sometimes like you are learning a language within a language when you hear it spoken. It takes practice and time and I would even try and remind Mongolian friends and associates to slow down and say words individually at times.
However, this is a challenge that can be overcome. The more exposure you get the easier it will become. Also listening to how different phrases are spoken at different speeds and situations can help. Here at Goldigobi, we understand this and allow you to practice this very challenge! Check out our courses we offer that were built with a lot of feed back from actual non-Mongolian speakers.
Fact 2: Head-spinning Mongolian Cyrillic Alphabet
Ever heard of the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet? Well if you are planning on learning Mongolian, it is something you should be aware of and will leave your head spinning soon enough. The Mongolian Cyrillic Alphabet has been taught since 1941, under the Soviet era and is very similar to the Russian Cyrillic Alphabet, only having two added letters, (Өө, Үү). However that doesn’t mean all letters sound exactly the same, in fact they do make different sounds. These sounds can be incredibly hard for native English speakers to learn and that comes down to the pronoucation of some of these sounds, and what muscles you are using. While English uses the front of the throat, Mongolians use the back of the throat a lot more, making it very unnatural for native English speakers.
Although it may be a lot to get your head around at first, if you actually take the time to learn the Cyrillic Alphabet, you will have a much stronger foundation for future learning. If you do then it will become much easier to learn Mongolain vocabulary and understand how sounds are joined together or even entirely dropped within a sentence. We cover everything to do with the Cyrillic Alphabet straight away in our beginner course which you can check out by following the link below!
Fact 3: Pronunciation!
By now you should already be getting a good picture of why Mongolian can be considered a really hard language to learn. As I started to mention above, pronunciation can be a real motivation drainer when learning Mongolian. It takes a lot of time, patience and practice to become fluent in pronunciation (and even then you will make mistakes). Mongolain is part of a very isolated language family and because of this it will sound entirely different from English. It is very guttal, almost as if you are mumbling at times.
Mongolian also has several combinations of long and short vowels that change the stress of words. It also has several letters that are either a soft or hard sign (ъ, ь) that have no sound of their own but when added to a word, change it entirely. This can be very confusing to native English speakers, as there is no such signs present in the English Alphabet. As well as this, Mongolain as a language is interwined complexly with its culture and history, much more so than English which is very much an international language. To learn these cultural normals can only really be done through experience and practice.
Fact 4: Sentence Structures
Mongolian as I have already said is part of the Altaic Language which includes such languages as Korean and Japanese. Of course, learning a language is going to be different for everyone and you may find something challenging that others don’t. Talking to several Koreans, they found Mongolian to not be as difficult as learning other languages. Why? Because of the similarities in sentence structure.
In English, the sentence structure is; Subject + verb + object. In Mongolian, it will be Subject + object + verb. So instead of saying ‘I ate a sandwich’ in Mongolian, you would say; ‘I a sandwich ate’. Korean would follow the same structure as Mongolian. This can be very confusing for native English speakers and even other European languages which follow the same sentence structure. You have to rewire your brain on how you think, listening for objects before the verb. This is easier said than done, especially when listening to others. Your brain will be instinctively looking for the verb and you may miss the objects that come before. It can in fact even be easier for a native English speaker to read Mongolain backwards as it makes more sense in English when you translate it, let that sink in for a bit!
Fact 5: Available Resources
Now this one isn’t as big an issue as it was 5 years ago. There is in fact a lot more options available online. However, it can still be hard to find material that is relevant to what a person is needing. There is quite a few different beginner course options out there online which you can use. However, there isn’t many options when it comes to online-self study Mongolian courses available that will teach you intermediate and advanced Mongolian. Nomiin Ger offers some good learning resources for beginners but doesn’t have online self-study courses that you can do from any device. Another new provider Ling has a very polished app which is great for beginners, but it doesn’t offer much for intermediate or advanced users and could do better on the cultural front.
Goldigobi on the other hand is a little different. Yes, its courses aren’t as polished as Ling and they probably don’t offer as many options as Homin Ger for online face to face lessons but Goldigobi hits the sweet spot for learners of Mongolian. It offers courses for all levels which focus also on the history and culture which is so connected to the language. It uses a range of learning styles including videos, listening exercises and scenarios. It also has modules for different industries, which really gives a nicer focus if you need it for say especially as a teacher. It also offers a lot of free content including a huge range of flashcards to learn from! Then there are online, live face-to-face lessons with experienced teachers. What is cool about this is it allows you to integrate your stage of learning with the teacher. Take notes of anything you are having difficulty with and waste no time with your teacher getting the answers and practice!
To Sum Up:
Mongolian can be a hard language to learn. With its difficult grammar and pronunciation as well as its cultural slang it will, if I am being honest here, at times leave you frustrated and your head spinning. But I will finish with this. The first time I was ever able to get past all these obstacles was one of the most rewarding experiences. I was in a restaurant and a stranger came up to have a conversation for about 10mins. After finishing the conversation there was a sense of relief and pride. You will finally realise your hard work has paid off and that it is, in fact not impossible to learn Mongolian. For those of you who have started stick with it and you will be proficiently speaking Mongolian in no time. For those of you who are thinking of starting I don’t want this to dishearten you, rather just to let you know what you are getting into and that it can be a very rich and rewarding learning experience.
So what are you waiting for? Take the plunge and start learning Mongolian today!