How Hard Is Mongolian to Learn?

Mongolian is one of the lesser studied languages in the world. However, it has a long and interesting history and is well worth your time to take a look at. So, how hard is Mongolian to learn?

  • Vocabulary – There are a few loan words from Chinese, Russian and English but not enough to convey an obvious advantage to people who speak those languages. The vocabulary is build from a combination of existing words or from some root word with suffixes attached. The logic of combining together existing words is helpful and often means we learn faster. 
  • Grammar – In terms of grammar your big issue is going to be the word order which is subject-object-verb, the use of multiple cases which will take time to learn and the use of suffixes to denotes things like verb tense or prepositions. To anyone who is a native English speak this will be difficult as these issues are not found in English. 
  • Speaking/Listening – Mongolian has a lot of alien consonant sounds. There is also a big range of long and short vowels. The vowel harmony rule in which all vowels in a word have agree in terms of type, takes time to learn and then use. Vowel harmony is a form that isn’t found in English so there is a steep learning curve for most beginners and they found themselves difficult to be understood. 
  • Writing/Reading – For Mongolian writing they have borrowed a Cyrillic writing system with 35 letters. This doesn’t map onto the spoken Mongolian language perfectly and so there is a lot of irregularity to the spelling on some Mongolian words. That being said, an alphabet is easier than a writing system like Japanese so you should have learnt how to read it in a couple of weeks. 

How Hard Is Mongolian to Learn Really?

— Vocabulary

Mongolian has loans words from a large variety of sources. Earlier loans words crept in from from Tibetan, Sansrit, Persian and Mandarin. In the 20th century, with the influence of the USSR, Russian words began to appear. More recently many English language words have also sprung into use.

  • Management — menejment
  • Credit — kredit
  • Online — onlain
  • Message – mesej 

In Mongolian, words are formed from some base root like gur meaning house, and then one of more suffixes are added to form new words like gur-lekr which means to get married or house-acquire. This type of word formation is called agglutination and is quite unfamiliar for native English speakers.

— Grammar

The main issues to keep an eye on with Mongolian grammar are the cases and the suffix rules for verbs. A lot of memorisation of case and suffix rules is necessary and this can really take a long time to become familiar with.

  • Word Order – Mongolian has a subject-object-verb word order. This is very different to English.
  • Cases – In Mongolian there are 7 grammatical cases. In a sentence, the case explains the role of each piece of the sentence. These cases are denoted by a suffix on the part of speech. These can take some time to get used to and require a lot of practice. The cases and their uses are as follows.
      1. Normative – denotes the subject, you, we, they and so on.
      2. Accusative – denotes the direct object. I threw the ball to my friend — the ball is the direct object.
      3. Genitive – possession of one thing by another.
      4. Dative/locative – denotes the indirect object, a place or a time. I threw the ball to the manthe man is the indirect object.
      5. Instrumental – denotes how something happens.
      6. Ablative – denotes movement away.
      7. Comitative – denotes togetherness
  • Suffixes – The above cases system use suffixes, however there are many other suffixes with a purpose other than cases. There are two types of suffixes.
      1. Derivational suffixes – these are words that have a stand alone meaning but they can also be added to other words to create new words.
      2. Inflectional suffixes – these have no meaning on their own but when attached to other words can alter the tense of a verb or denote a preposition on a noun.
  • Pronouns – There exist pronouns much like in English apart from for he/she/it which use this and that instead.
  • Nouns – There are no genders for nouns and be aware that many nouns are made from existing words grouped together. Plurals are denotes by specific suffixes.
  • Prepositions – There are a lot of different prepositions in Mongolian and the nouns may require a additional suffix for the sentence to work.
  • Adjectives – The adjective goes before the noun.
  • Verbs – Verbs have a base form to which you can attach tense suffixes. The special case verb be behaves much like the other verbs in terms of the change for tenses.
  • Direct and Indirect Objects — There are suffixes for direct and indirect objects which denotes the specific case.
  • Questions – Questions are formed by adding the suffix uu at the end of the sentence. There are also a number of specific question words to use at the beginning.

— Speaking/Listening

  • Consonant sounds – There are believed to be around 29 consonant sounds in Mongolian. Most of them are familiar to an English speaker but some beginners have issues with the ch, j, kh, sh, shch, ts,  and z.
  • Vowel sounds – There are 7 base vowel sounds of which there are 2 types, long and short vowels. The length of the vowel changes the meaning. There is also a vowel which can be placed before the vowels. The vowels can also team up to form around 10 diphthongs. In Mongolian there is also this concept called vowel harmony. There are vowels created at the front of the mouth and vowels created at the back of the mouth. In any word, including for all the suffixes, the vowels have to be either all front or all back vowels. This is probably one of the more difficult concepts to get used to in Mongolian.
  • Stress – Stress is used in Mongolian on certain syllables. The rules are complex and multivariate and worth studying.

— Writing/Reading

In the Republic of Mongolia they use a Mongol Cyrillic script. This has 35 letters from the Russian Cyrillic script plus 2 more. This was introduced in 1941. In Inner Mongolia, a province of China, they use a roman script to write Mongolian.

Mongolia has a long and varied history with different writing systems from surrounding regions influencing them in one way or another. Before the Cyrillic in Mongolia they had a traditional Mongolian script which can still be seen in Inner Mongolia and is now mainly used for decorative purposes and art in the Republic of Mongolia.

Why Learn Mongolian?

The question of why to learn any language is often personal. But let me map out why I think you should learn Mongolia with some reasons of my own.

  1. Many people say the challenge of Mongolian is what drew them to learn it. There is the complex Cyrillic writing system combined with the suffix based case grammar. There is a significant amount of complexity to get your teeth into and people like such a challenge. 
  2. It is the language of Genghis Khan, well kinda. He would have spoken a form of medieval middle Mongolian. But that aside, Mongolia has a rich culture and learning the language gives you a change to explore the art, music and food of the region.
  3. Business opportunities are growing in Mongolia. The country has seen a lot of investment on the mining sectors and some people are saying it is going to be the next Asian wolf. If you were to pick up some Mongolian and position yourself in Ulaanbaatar you may find some decent work. 
  4. Few English speaking people have tried Mongolian. It is usually people from the countries around Mongolia that pick up the language. You would gain significant chic value for having taken on such an obscure language.
  5. Travelling in Mongolia is certainly improved if you know some of the language. The country is vast, but if you learn Khalkh Mongolian you will be well prepared for a conversation with people from most areas.

Mongolian Facts

Who Speaks Mongolian?

The Mongolian language has two mutually intelligible forms. Mongolian Khalkh spoken by over 2 million in the Republic of Mongolia, and Peripheral Mongolian spoken by close to 4 million in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. It is also spoken by around 500000 spread across other regions of China and Russia. The two sub categories detailed earlier can each be broken down into their own dialects.

How Old is Mongolian Language?

The basic Khalkh language has been around since the time of the Mongol empire where it evolved from the middle Mongol language. It is a nomadic language which has been subjected to a wide range of influences over the years.

It was first influenced by Tibetan and Sanskrit when Buddhism arrive in the region. Later, many Chinese words were incorporated during the Qing dynasty. When the communists took over, the Russians had a significant impact introducing new scientific vocabulary. In the age of globalisation, English has also made a slight mark in terms of new vocab.

Why Does Mongolia Use Cyrillic?

Mongolians have used a number of writing scripts including Tibetan Sanskrit and Traditional Mongolian Script. However, in 1941 they adopted a Cyrillic script with 2 extra letters. Mongolia was a strong ally and a major trading partner of the USSR so it made sense to make the change. The government of Mongolia did propose changing back to traditional script in the 90s but there was a lot of push back to the idea.

The traditional Mongolian script is used by some Mongolian speakers in Inner Mongolia but even there it is being replaced by a Latin script. The script is now more often seen used for decorative purposes.

Is Mongolian Similar to Chinese?

Mongolian language is not very similar to Mandarin Chinese despite the proximity of the two countries and the clear history of cultural exchange.

In the area of writing Mongolian Cyrillic and Chinese characters are very different. One is an alphabet and the other is made up of symbol logograms. The pronunciation sounds of Mongolian are quite alien to Chinese speakers and Mandarin is a tonal language unlike Mongolian. The grammar of Mongolian is heavily dependent on suffix marker addition with a s-o-v word order, while Chinese has an analytical grammar form with a s-v-o word order.

The only area of shared similarity is in vocabulary. During the Qing dynasty a lot of Chinese words were adopted by Mongolian speakers.

Sample of Mongolian

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