Mongolia Monday: Teaching Myself Mongolian

Today I thought I would share how I’m studying to learn Mongolian. I had two years of German in high school and before that, had had some private lessons in Japanese before a trip that my mom and I took with two other couples to Japan in 1968 when I was fourteen. That’s pretty much the extent of my foreign language experience. (Trying to teach myself Welsh was a non-starter and I don’t know that learning to read the Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English counts)

Before my second trip to Mongolia in 2006, I decided that I both wanted and needed to learn at least a little of the language since I was going to be traveling on my own for over three weeks with only Mongolian guides and drivers. The guides, at least, speak decent English, but I was going to be finding my way around Ulaanbaatar on my own part of the time.

The first sign I could read; the ubiquitious "KHAN BANK"; Hovd,Sept. 2006

I advertised in our local news/art/culture weekly for a Mongolian tutor (in rural Humboldt County, California?) and, guess what, I got a phone call within two days. Seems a woman from Mongolia, who had met and married an American guy who was there serving in the Peace Corps, was at a party with her husband and a number of people asked them if they had seen the ad.

It turns out that she had only been in this country for a couple of months, so her English was still very uncertain. He called me and we set up a meeting between her and I. It went well and we were able to get together about a half dozen times before I left. Even better, we’ve stayed in touch and become friends with them.

She drilled me in basic pronunciation, got me going with some basic vocabulary and taught me necessary phrases like “hello”, “thank you” and “I’m from California”. Her husband contributed a word to use if someone hassled me- “Yasambay!” (sic), which means “What are you doing?”, the idea being that the person would be so shocked at hearing Mongolian from a non-Mongol that he/she would immediately stop whatever they were doing. As it happens, I’ve had no occasion to say it so far.

That tutoring, plus a copy of the Lonely Planet phrase guide for Mongolian is what I had until last year.

Banner for tent sales, Narantuul Market; Ulaanbaatar, May 2005- top line: "GERIIN MOD, ASAR MAIKHAN" - Geriin is, I believe, the possessive of ger, the felt "tents". Maikhan are the summer tents; "ONO MONKH", followed by "GERIIN BUREES KHOSHOG, TSAVAG"; OYUU TSAGAAN", followed by "BREZENT MASHIN KHUCHLAGA"; last line "UTAS", "Call:"

After sitting mute, and depending on a translator, during my three days of meetings with the herder women in July of 2009, I decided that it was time to get serious. While I was in Ulaanbaatar I bought Mongolian-English and English-Mongolian dictionaries.

When I got home I started to comb the web for a language program and found one from Transparent Language. (None of the other major foreign language companies offer Mongolian as far as I can tell). It is based on word lists that are viewed on “cards”. Each word is in Mongolian Cyrillic and and a transliteration into the Latin alphabet. One can also listen to a male native Mongolian speaker and repeat back each word. It even lets you slow down the speaker so you can hear the word better. There are a variety of other activities like typing out the words and some simple games.

I had also bought a small stack of music CDs and rapidly realized that I could use them, too. The perfect two-fer, listen to cool pop and rock music and study Mongolian at the same time.

Billlboard; taken from train on the way to Ikh Nartiin Chuluu, April 2005 (I may have started to fall in love with Mongolia at this point, seeing the bactrian camel cart)- "MONGOL SHUUDAN BANK"

But I was still struggling to get anywhere. As it turns out, my husband had to learn Russian when he joined the Air Force (and if I say any more, I’ll have to kill you). He told me the first thing he and his classmates had to do was memorize the Russian alphabet overnight. He suggested that I back up and learn the Mongolian cyrillic alphabet. I managed that in a few evenings and suddenly it got a little easier.

I’d started to “collect” words, writing them on a pad of paper. That reached its limit of practicality pretty quickly. I bought a copy of Bento, the consumer-level database program for the Mac and created my own word list, which is divided into categories like English, Mongolian, part of speech and subject (animal, food, furniture, etc.). I can sort my list by any of them, which is very useful and why I bought a database. It will be on my laptop, which travels with me, but I’m also going to print it out in each category to have handy in the car or when I’m walking around.

Recently, a commenter on another post told me about Anki, a downloadable program that generates “cards” with whatever content one wants like, say, Mongolian words. This is the same model the Transparent Language package, Byki Deluxe, uses, but those are pre-set. I’ve downloaded Anki, which is free, but haven’t had time to mess with it.

Well, that banner was a surprise. Are there actually any collies in Mongolia? I have no idea. Ulaanbaatar, Sept. 2006- "SHINE (new) BARAA (merchandise) IRLEE ("has arrived", I think it means)"

Then a French Facebook friend (say that fast three times) told me about PowerWord, which includes Mongolian as one of their offerings. So, for $8.99, I now have a Mongolian language program on my iPhone, too. It is also based on word lists, like Byki, but so far I think I like the way it’s organized better. It also has a spoken component, this time with a female voice.

Of course, the best and fastest way to learn will be immersion in the language once I get to Mongolia. But I hope I’ve “primed the pump” for rapid progress with the study that I’m doing before departure.

Chinggis is everywhere; Ulaanbaatar, Sept. 2006- "ENERJI"; the lines above and below the main word are in a script that I can't quite figure out for every letter. The block lettering is easy by comparison.

Comments and corrections welcome!

Mongolia Monday- New Mongolian Grammar Book

I got an email a month or so ago from one Munkhbayar Barmunkh, with a link to the Amazon page which offered the above book- a new, as of Sept. 2009, Mongolian grammar textbook. He turns out to be the publisher. I ordered it immediately.

The author, Khatantuul Baatarsukh,  has a BA in International Relations and Slavic Studies from the School of Foreign Services at the National University of Mongolia. It was clearly a labor of love. She says in the Preface, “Writing this book was a daring project, for it has many critics. My motivating force was the love and fascination of the art of language. My inspiration comes from life.”

As some of you know, I’m trying to teach myself Mongolian. I’m using: a Transparent Language course ; listening to Mongolian music via both CDs I’ve purchased and TsahimRadio, an internet radio station run by a Mongolian Facebook friend; and asking Mongol friends to translate words and phrases for me. I also have the Lonely Planet phrase book, which is dated in some unfortunate ways, but still very useful; and Mongolian/English and English/Mongolian dictionaries that I brought back in July.

I just bought Bento, the Mac-based consumer datebase app. I’m going to do my own word list since I need a specialized vocabulary of art and craft terms so that I can start to communicate with the felt craft coop ladies.

There doesn’t seem to be much else available that isn’t either really expensive or doesn’t fit my needs. I haven’t diagrammed a sentence since 8th grade (am I dating myself?), but I think this book will be quite helpful.

Mongolian is structured differently than English. The word order is more like German: Subject, object, verb. Verbs are modified by endings, so while I can look up a verb’s root word in the dictionary, I’ve had no idea how to use it correctly in a sentence. One exception is “gui”, which creates a negative. So, “chadakh” means “can” and “chadakhgui” means “cannot”.

The main problem that I have in learning a language is that I have a visual memory. That is, I store and retrieve information in images, for the most part. It makes remembering things like strings of numbers interesting. So, I find it difficult to make sense out of the terms for cases and how to relate them to anything. I’m hoping this grammar will help me sort that out, one way or another. I may just have to learn it by rote, which is ok, too.

All the text is in English and Mongolian cyrillic, which is almost, but not quite, the same as the Russian alphabet. There are lots of practice exercises, with a key at the back.

This book is not for beginning language students. I know just enough to start to beat my way through some of it. It will go with me on my next trip, though.

I invite both the author and publisher to add more information or comments, along with anyone else who has the book or would like to offer ideas/comments about the Mongolian language.

Mongolia Monday- Sain Bain Uu!

Which is Mongolian for “Hi!” or “Greetings”. It’s pronounced, roughly, “sain” as in sandwich, “ban” as in bandaid, “uu” as in oval.

I’ve just downloaded what looks to be a very useful Mongolian language program from Transparent Language. The next trip is coming up in July and I want to be able to communicate better. Before my 2006 trip, I was able to  find a local Mongolian woman who tutored me in basic pronunciation and vocabulary, along with some simple sentences. It’s amazing how far you can get with: please, thank you, excuse me, yes, no, hello, goodbye, I like….., and knowing the numbers from one to ten. But it didn’t help when I heard a cool song on the driver’s MP3 player and had no way of asking who the artist was. I have a Lonely Planet Phrasebook and a “cheat sheet” from my tutor, but that’s not enough.

I have some familiarity with learning a new language. Spanish (see below), some basic Japanese (I can still count to ten!) when I was 14, two years of German in high school (wish I’d taken one year of German and one of French) and some Middle English and Anglo-Saxon in college. At one point I’d decided to teach myself Welsh. It was a short point.

Like many languages, Mongolian has sounds that don’t exist in English, so that’s a challenge. One travel writer describes spoken Mongolian as sounding like two cats fighting, but I’ve found that to be somewhat of an exaggeration. The guys seem to play up the gutteral sounds more than the women, especially in the countryside. There are rolled “r”s, which means that after 40 years, my stupid junior high Spanish class has finally turned out to be good for something. And there is a sound that is similar to the double “L” in Welsh. Vowels that are “doubled”, like in the sign below or in “Ulaanbaatar”, are audibly extended, as in Khan vs. Khaaan.  One of the sounds that I have found most challenging so far is “g”. It seems to be something like “uudo”, with a slightly rolled “d”, but I’m sure I’m mangling it into something hilarious. The Mongols are blessedly tolerant of anyone who takes a swing at their language and seem to appreciate the attempt.

Their alphabet is a close adaptation of  Russian Cyrillic and I’ll be learning that, too. It will be nice to be able to read at least some of the signs in Ulaanbaatar. Like these (I used to be a sign painter and still can’t resist taking pictures of signs that catch my eye). There’s just enough overlap with the Roman alphabet to be slightly maddening. You feel like you can almost read it, but no.

Khaan Bank, Hovd, western Mongolia
Khan Bank, Hovd, western Mongolia

Although, in this case, it was more the beautiful building that I wanted a picture of. But good to know that this is a bank, if one is running low of cash. One of the first signs I was able to read.

Gers and tents for sale at the Narantuul Market, UB
Gers and tents for sale at the Narantuul Market, UB

I took this photo partly because I had no time to inquire about details like prices and didn’t want to lose track of them since I would really like to get a tent like the one on the right.

Pet shop sign, Ulaanbaatar
Pet shop sign, Ulaanbaatar

Since my dog is a tri-color rough collie, the same breed as the dog on the sign, I had to get a picture. I’ve wondered since then if there are actually any collies in Mongolia. They certainly have a coat that would be handy in the cold weather. Lassie Forever!

Street sign, central Ulaanbaatar
Street sign, central Ulaanbaatar

Now, how could anyone resist a drink that will give them the energy of the Mongol Horde?