Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


So, Where Can I Learn Mongolian?

… is a question probably asked by very few people, since the language is useful in all of two countries. It’s not an easy question to answer, either, since it’s asked by so few. But if you found your way to this blog by asking it, then you’re in luck, as I will endeavor here to answer it.

To begin with, let me clarify: most of the resources I know of teach Standard Khalkha, the  main language spoken in Mongolia proper, but there are a number of other dialects. The dialects spoken in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, are phonologically and morphologically similar but written in Mongol bichig rather than Cyrillic; whether they are mutually intelligible, I’m not certain.

Peace Corps Materials

The Peace Corps has had a presence in Mongolia for 25 years, and most of its volunteers are placed in the countryside, among people who speak little to no English. Three of the PCVs who left Mongolia in 2013 tested at an “advanced high” language level. Obviously, you’re not going to get the same results without the two years of immersion, but I still have great respect for their teaching materials and methods.


If you want to go the teaching-yourself-with a textbook route, the good news is that there are quite a few out there. The bad news is that most of the ones I have encountered are, quite frankly, terrible. UCLA’s Language Materials Project has a handy, if slightly out-of-date, list of available textbooks, many of which I’ve attempted to use, with mixed results. Some of them are (theoretically) available on Amazon, but I suspect you’ll have much better luck ordering from the Language Resource Center at the American Center for Mongolian Studies in Ulaanbaatar.

  • While I have no experience with them, the three book Сайн Байна Уу? series is by far the best reviewed.
  • Colloquial Mongolian: The Complete Course for Beginners is perhaps overeager where other textbooks underachieve: in its grammatical explanations. If you are a language teacher or grammar enthusiast to whom terms like “temporal converb” and “perfective verbal noun” have meaning, I highly recommend this book; if not, you will likely find yourself staring blankly at the explanations and wondering if they’re really written in English. My copy did not come with a CD, but I was able to find the audio online.
  • Practical Mongolian-English Grammar uses side-by-side translations grouped via grammatical principle to demonstrate the workings of basic Mongolian grammar. In theory, this should allow the learner to induce the rules; in practice, I found that while I was able to observe a number of patterns, I understood very few of them and needed outside input to test my hypotheses. Which words take -d in the dative/locative, and which take -t? Is ажилчин (worker) pluralized ажилчид because it’s a people word, or because it ends in -н? I would recommend this book as a reference, but not a primarily learning tool.
  • Gateway to Mongolian, if you are able to track down a copy with a CD, can teach you a number of things but will likely leave you frustrated. New vocabulary terms are often introduced in lists without illustration or translation (and are absent from the glossary); grammatical explanations are spotty. Some are helpful, others nonexistent: the new pattern is presented, but its meaning is not discussed. And I found some of the explanations to be completely unintelligible. It’s clear that this book’s authors are not native English speakers.
  • Golden Key to Mongolian suffers from similar issues and is just as difficult to track down. I don’t recommend it.

Online Resources

  • Bolor-toli is probably the most comprehensive online dictionary I’ve found.
  • Byki is a notecard-style program that’s great for basic vocabulary. No grammar and a limited number of vocabulary lists, but it’s offered in Cyrillic or the Roman alphabet, and the basic model is free.
  • Glovico.org offers online, Skype-based lessons. It’s not free, and I’ve never tried it, but I’d be fascinated to hear a review!
  • LinguaMongolia has a detailed breakdown of the Uighur (Mongol bichig) script, as well as grammatical explanations particular to that writing system.
  • Mazaalai (Mongolian for Gobi Bear) is a Mongolian dictionary app available for iOS or Android. It’s not particularly comprehensive but still faster to use than the average paper dictionary, especially if you’re less than familiar with the order of the Cyrillic alphabet.
  • MongolHel is a YouTube channel with basic lessons for English speakers. There are only seven videos, but the one on vowels is a great supplement for those impossible-to-pronounce diphthongs!
  • MongolUls.net has a few basic tutorials, though the Cyrillic is illegible unless you download the font. More helpfully, it offers a number of short articles on elements of Mongolian culture which, although obviously written by a nonnative English speaker, are still entirely readable.
  • Omniglot has some basic information about the language, including a breakdown of the Mongol bichig alphabet in its initial, medial, and final forms. It also lists a number of language resources.

Colleges, Classes, & Libraries

There are, of course, other lists of resources: this one from “So You Want to Learn a Language” is particularly extensive. It is not, however, concise, and I’ve tried to focus on what will be most useful.  If you’ve got resources you particularly recommend, I’d love to include them here.

Hope this is helpful!


A Land of Many Scripts

My first few days in Mongolia were bewildering ones. Consider: I had a thirteen-hour time difference to adjust to; I’d never been to Asia before; I couldn’t speak the language, or even read the alphabet. I’d done almost no research on Ulaanbaatar, the city in which I’d be spending the next three weeks. I’m not usually such an underprepared traveler, mind you; we were supposed to have an orientation program in which we’d learn the basics of the language and culture, as well as how to do things like navigate the city and order food.

But that started on Monday, and we arrived on Thursday.

So our first few meals in Mongolia were of the “point at something on the menu and hope for the best” variety – a dicey enterprise, but one from which we thankfully emerged unscathed. I’m particularly grateful that I never ended up with anything really nasty because this remained an ordering strategy for far longer than one would have expected, even after I’d learned the Cyrillic alphabet. Reading Cyrillic, it turns out, does not mean you can read Mongolian.

Mongolians have been writing for a long time, and the way they write has evolved considerably during that time. Learning to read in Mongolia is therefore no simple matter. Whereas most Americans have only one alphabet to master, Mongolians have a variety to choose from.


Image Credit: the Japanese Archaeological Association

While several variants exist, Mongolian Phags-pa is very boxy and not particularly script-like.

Invented during the reign of Kublai Khan in order to serve three languages spoken at the heart of the then-enormous Mongol Empire (Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese), this blocky-looking script fell pretty quickly from common use. While Mongolians no longer write with it, it does appear frequently as ornamentation – perhaps because it bears some resemblance to the knot-like decorative patterns they so often favor. I’ve seen it on statues, stationery, fabrics – and, of course, money.

Phags-pa vertical along the left; to the right, the soyombo.

Phags-pa vertical along the left; to the right, the soyombo.


Money brings us to another short-lived script: Soyombo, which is not technically an alphabet, but an abugida(If you’ve never heard of one,  you’re not alone. In short, it’s a system that notes consonant-vowel groupings, emphasizing the consonants.) The Soyombo script was designed in the 1680s by Mongolian scholar-monk Bogdo Zanabazar for translating Buddhist documents from Tibetan or Sanskrit. This very complex system never made it into everyday use, but its eponymous Soyombo symbol has been adopted as a national symbol and appears on everything from bills to walls to the flag.

Classical Script

Handwritten for me by the Erdenet Children's Palace director.

Handwritten for me by the Erdenet Children’s Palace director.

Called монгол бичиг, or Mongol bichig (literally, Mongolian writing) this writing system has certainly had the longest run of them all, and it’s still used in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. In Mongolia proper its modern uses are mainly ceremonial: logos, certificates, statues, signs. I’ve seen many documents titled in the script, or stamped with it alongside a signature, but never one entirely written in it. It too graces every piece of Mongolian currency, and Mongol bichig calligraphy is a common art form – especially among students, all of whom now learn it as children.

Though one of my tutees offered to teach me this beautiful script, I declined. I’m still very much a beginner in reading in Cyrillic, so adding this would mean biting off way more than I could chew. Like Phags-Pa, this script is vertical – but while the cursive system has a “spine,” little else of it is orthogonal. It also resembles Arabic in that its letters take different forms depending on whether they fall at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. As if that wasn’t enough, everything written in the Classical Script is also spelled differently, since Cyrillic spellings reflect changes in pronunciation that have occurred since the Classical codification of Mongolian. Had I lived in Mongolia another year, I would have liked to learn it, but in the limited time I had, I decided not to court madness.


Block-printed Cyrillic is the everyday writing system in Mongolia and has been since the Soviets first stepped in in the 1940s. This is what you’ll find in textbooks, legal documents – anything printed. It’s the writing system in which I learned to read Mongolian, and to this day it remains the only one in which I can reliably do so. Mongolian Cyrillic has two more letters than Russian Cyrillic – vowels ү and ө, which correspond approximately to “oo” and “eu” [u,ʊ]. Despite these additions, Google still fails to distinguish between the two languages, though at least it now recognizes Mongolian as a language.

Cyrillic Script

Unfortunately, learning block-printed Cyrillic is not enough. Whereas many Americans consider cursive so obsolete that a lot of elementary schools no longer teach it, the reverse seems to be true in Mongolia. Any handwritten Mongolian you encounter will almost certainly be in cursive, be it on longhand lesson plans or the dry-erase menus favored at cheap diners.

To say that this is problematic for foreigners is and understatement, because Cyrillic script is confusing. Not only are many of its letters very similar to each other, as is typical of scripts, they are also highly dissimilar to their printed forms. Consider д, р, and т in the chart below, and compare г to ч or м to и and ц.

This made it extremely difficult for Mongolians to teach me things, since I need to see words written out in order to remember them. They’d write in cursive, and when I said I couldn’t read it, they’d try the Latin alphabet, which I couldn’t read either. The poem below was written for me by the school director inside a notebook she gave me. In return, I gave her a book with a note in English cursive. “Katya, your writing is bad!” she told me, at which point I indicated her own, explaining that I couldn’t read it either. Thereafter, she was much more consistent about printing.

Катяд (?) / (?) төлөө (?) / Сайн дуу минь / Сайн найз минь / Сайн багш минь (?) төлөө / (Минй хувьд цагаа / зөв хуваар??? / чиний чөлөөт / цагаар хамт / (?) (?) / Чиний найз Цоож
Kudos to anyone who can puzzle out the rest!


Mongolian can be written in the Latin alphabet too, of course. The government implemented it briefly in the 1900s before abandoning it in favor of Cyrillic. But if the Cyrillic alphabet is a poor fit for this language, the Latin alphabet is an even poorer one. Mongolian Cyrillic has twelve and a half vowels, and while there’s some overlap in the sounds they represent, all are used. Even if you use y’s to denote я, е, ё, ю as ya, yeyoyu, that still leaves more vowels than the Latin alphabet can accommodate. Standard transcription methods use diacritics to distinguish between the remaining vowels, as follows:

Screen shot 2014-01-13 at 12.20.06 PMHowever, this scheme (from Charles Bawden’s Mongolian-English Dictionary) differs from the one used by the US Library of Congress, which differs again from the one that often appears in Wikipedia articles. It’s also extremely misleading for English speakers, since virtually none of the vowels are pronounced the way we’d expect them to be. As a result, transliterated Mongolian makes no sense to me. Bi avtobusaar gereecee delgüür rüü yavaad emnelegt irsen does not sound like Би автобусаар гэрээсээ дэлгүүр рүү яваад эмнэлэгт ирсэн in my head, and I’m hard-pressed just to figure out how to spell that sentence, much less read it. It just doesn’t process.

Furthermore, there’s the issue of usage. Mongolians do not typically use the Latin alphabet unless they are a) using a computer without a Mongolian keyboard, or b) texting. Neither scenario lends itself to the use of diacritics, and so the у/ү distinction is lost. Standardization, meanwhile, goes by the wayside: e could be э or e, yo ë or ю, and I’ve seen ө rendered as both u and o. Mongolian has rules about which vowels can occur in the same word, so it’s usually clear which letter is meant in longer words, but shorter ones are problematic. By uul, do you mean уул or үүл – am I supposed to be looking at the cloud, or the mountain? Happily, there is no өөл to further the confusion, but уур, үүр, and өөр are distinct words that are all commonly rendered as uur


Oh, so you thought we were done? Guess again! While it’s not used for everyday purposes and most Mongolians can’t read or write it, Tibetan writing is ubiquitous in Mongolia. Most Mongolians are nominally Buddhist, Shamanist, or a combination of the two, and it was the Tibetans who brought Buddhism to Mongolia. Anything of religious significance will likely include Tibetan writing: prayer wheels, prayer flags, temples and stupas, statues of religious figures.

A single sign or statue in Mongolia might bear inscriptions in three or four different scripts. It makes for a rich and varied, but initially bewildering, cultural experience that requires a lot of puzzling out.


A Tibetan phrase, transliterated into Cyrillic, with an attempt at an English translation.



Losing My Name

I’ve always been a bit of a brat about who is allowed to call me what. I hate it when people shorten my name, and not just because it feels overly familiar and disrespectful. I know many girls named Kate or Katie, and they’re lovely names. They’re just not mine.

There are exceptions, of course. My parents call me Kate at times, especially when annoyed – which doesn’t make me particularly eager to let other people call me that. They also call me Katie, as do my aunts and uncles and cousins; once your grandmother decides to call you something, you’re stuck with that moniker for life. I have precisely three friends who call me Katie-lyn, and my college friends and I address each other using a wide variety of endearments: dear, hon(ey), sug(ar), darlin(g), love. (Babe and baby are off-limits even to boyfriends; as my first roommate once so aptly put it, “unless someone is currently putting me in a corner, ain’t nobody calls me ‘Baby!'”

But aside from those very particular exceptions, I hold firm. Unless you are related to me, you may not call me Kate, nor Katie. I do not answer to Kat, nor Kay. I can handle [katlin] (“kaht-leen”) from the French and [Kætlɪn] (“cat-lin”) from the Irish, but unless your dialect gets in the way, my name is Katelin, thankyouverymuch.

Or at least it was, until I moved to a country where [ke:ʔlɪn] is apparently impossible to pronounce and everyone has both a long and short name. To keep from being called Kate or Katie, I told Mongolians my name is Katya – but with limited success. My roommate and her family called me Katie or Ketty; the Embassy staff and some of the school administrators, despite my repeated requests, routinely shortened my name to Kate. Factor in the mispronunciations and Mongolian terms of address, and I found myself answering to a wide selection of names:

  • Kate
  • Kat
  • Katya
  • Katie/Ketty
  • Ketty-sister
  • эгч ээ and анаа, (“ig-chay” and “anaa”), two terms of address for an older sister
  • Kata anaa (this one was exclusive to my roommate’s youngest niece, who couldn’t quite manage Katya, but usually paired her attempt with the affectionate term for a younger sister)
  • Kately, Ketlin, Kailey, Kailin, and other failed attempts to pronounce my name
  • Katyushka, in the fashion of Russian dimunitives

For that matter, I found myself reacting to nearly any word beginning with a /k/; the letter is not native to Mongolian, and while there is a similar sound natively present, it’s never found in the word-initial position. Which is to say that only names and (mostly-Russian) loanwords start with [k], and any such word uttered in my presence was usually an attempt at my name.

With my return to the US, I knew, would come a renewed fanatical insistence upon my full name. But in the meantime, I had to meet people halfway.


Mongolian Language Maze: Consonants We Don’t Have

One of the immediate difficulties of learning Mongolian – after tackling the unfamiliar Cyrillic characters – is the presence of a number of sounds that just don’t exist in English. For a beginner, it’s often difficult to hear and identify these sounds, much less reproduce them. A simple phrase like “Aнгли хэлний багш байгаа юу?” (Angli khelni bagsh baigaa you?, or Is there an English teacher here?) become unreasonably terrifying when you’re suddenly faced with an array of hissy, guttural sounds you don’t normally equate with speech. Once you actually learn to recognize these sounds, though, things get a lot easier.

Below, for your pronunciation practicing pleasure, is a list of some of the trickier sounds in the Mongolian language maze.

(Headings format: Cyrillic letter, /the most closely associated English phoneme/, [representation in the International Phonetic Alphabet], English transcription. Confused by the brackets? Linguists use square brackets to enclose speech sounds and slashes to enclose phonemes, or meaningful sounds. In this post, that means that “s” is written as [s] when I mean the sound and /s/ when I mean the letter or concept.)

Х, /h/, [x]; transcribed kh or h

I was familiar with this sound before attempting to learn Mongolian, having grown up hearing words like challahtuchus, and chutzpah (not to mention Chanukah),  but many English  speakers aren’t. It’s a velar fricative – a sound made at the back of your throat by allowing air through a channel so narrow it causes a lot of turbulence. (Examples: [f,s,z] are all fricatives; so are [ð] and [ө], the /th/ sounds.)  Most of us have come across this sound at some point (who hasn’t heard of Bach?), and it’s not particularly hard to make. In standard transcription, though, it’s rendered as kh to represent its difference from the English /h/, and this causes problems for innumerable tourists who insist on pronouncing the k.

When saying words like Darkhan, just throw in a little extra vibration at the back of your throat for the /h/; if you can’t manage that, just say it like a normal English /h/. You’ll sound a lot less silly than that tourist asking how to get to “Dar-con.”

Ц, /ts/, [ts]; transcribed ts

Alright, so this one’s sort of cheap, because we have the [ts] sound in English even if we don’t have a single letter for it: Pittsburgh. Cheats. Gutsy. Pizza – well, close enough. You get the idea. The problem is that English does not allow syllables, much less words, beginning with [ts], and Mongolian has plenty. As a result, English speakers will pronounce one sound but not the other when saying a word that starts with ц, rendering цамц as “tamts” and цагаан as “sagaan.”

(Цагаан is difficult to say even for those who can manage the word-initial [ts], as the Mongolian /г/ is realized in a number of unfamiliar ways to which I’ll devote a separate post.)

Р, /r/, [r]; transcribed r

It’s not a /p/, and it’s not the flat American /r/ either; that one’s represented as [ɹ] in most dialects. The Mongolian /r/ is trilled, like its Spanish or Italian counterparts. Since I speak neither of those languages, I hadn’t had a whole lot of practice trilling my /r/s  before I left for Mongolia. Needless to say, I’ve gotten a lot better in the past year and a half! I still can’t trill them without a vowel first, but luckily for me, most Mongolians have the same problem – that’s why the Mongolian word for Russia is Орос, or Oros.

Л, /l/, [ɬ]; transcribed l

Though л is always transcribed as l when using the Roman alphabet, the Mongolian /l/ sounds nothing like what we’d expect it it. It’s a hissy sound English-speaking friends have mistaken for /s/ or /t/, but that they never equate to /l/, and probably wouldn’t unless they spoke Welsh. The English [l] is a voiced lateral approximant; the Mongolian [ɬ] is an alveolar lateral fricative that Wikipedia says is technically voiced, though I’ve never heard it said that way and wouldn’t know how to voice it if I tried.

If the linguistic terms are meaningless to you, try this: put your tongue where you normally would to make the /l/ sound, between your front teeth and the alveolar ridge just behind them. Move the tip of your tongue behind that ridge, closer to your palate, and flare the sides outward a little. Blow air around the sides of your tongue without making your vocal cords vibrate. That’s the elusive Mongolian /l/.

Interested in the language I’ve spent the past 15 months trying to wrap my tongue around? More posts to come on the subject, under the Language Notes category. Also, I’d love some feedback on the readability of this post – I’m trying to make it approachable to those unfamiliar to the field of linguistics without losing the specificity of technical language.

It occurs to me that I haven’t actually written about the Cyrillic alphabet yet. If you’re unfamiliar with it, check out Polly’s post on the Russian alphabet over at A Girl and Her Travels – that should tide you over until I can write something about Mongolian Cyrillic, which is only slightly different.