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.


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.

1 Comment

Accent Challenge

My thanks to Polly for posting a challenge that both interested me and gave me an extra few days to write the conclusion to my hiking fiasco story! I find language endlessly interesting; I like to know how words are used, where they came from, what influences our word choices… the list goes on. So of course I wanted to join this examination of language variety. The challenge is posted below the video, along with a few additions of my own.

My own accent background, since I neglected to address it in the video: I’ve spent most of my life in the Chicago suburbs, and while I don’t think I sound like a stereotypical Chicagoan, my friends in Ohio have told me that there are times when I do. I went to college in southeastern Ohio, which had very little influence on my speaking, though it did teach me that it was impolite to flinch when people said things like, “the dishes need washed” or, “the floor needs swept.” Apparently it’s a valid construction in Ohio English. I also spent three months in Ireland in college, which definitely instilled a few Britishisms in my speech.

(Yes, I used ‘yoink’ as a verb. At least to me, it’s of onomatopoeic origin: it’s the sound my friends and I use when snagging something that belongs to someone else. And then the sound effect became a verb.)

The Challenge:

  • Pronounce the following words:
    • Aunt
    • Roof
    • Route
    • Theatre (theater, if it shows movies)
    • Iron
    • Salmon
    • Caramel
    • Fire
    • Water
    • New Orleans
    • Pecan
    • Both
    • Again
    • Probably
    • Alabama
    • Lawyer
    • Coupon
    • Mayonnaise
    • Pyjamas (pajamas!)
    • Caught
    • Naturally
    • Aluminium (aluminum!)
    • Doorknob
    • Envelope
    • Nucleus
    • Washing
    • Tomato
    • Where
    • Often
    • Greasy
    • Columbus
    • Minnesota
    • Police
    • Ask
    • Pen
    • Bag
    • Marry, merry, Mary
  • Answer the following questions:
    • What is it called when you throw toilet paper on a house?
    • What is a bubbly carbonated drink called?
    • What do you call gym shoes?
    • What do you call your grandparents?
    • What do you call the wheeled contraption in which you carry groceries at the supermarket?
    • What is the thing you change the TV channel with?
    • What do you call a large open metal container for water?
    • To carry groceries home, you put them in a ….
    • What do you call window coverings on rollers?
    • What do you call the glowing insects that kids catch and put in jars?
    • When waiting to check out your groceries, you stand __ line.
    • If your living room is messy, before company comes you…
    • If you’re talking to a group of friends, what do you call them?
    • It’s a quarter ___ five.
    • When the little girl started drowning, the lifeguard ______ into the pool.
    • What do you call the contraption that you drink water from?
    • Do you think you have an accent?

So, dear readers, please feel free to take up this challenge yourselves! I’d love to hear all your lovely accents.


Everyone Loves a Good Riddle

More often than I’d like to admit, I’m interrupted while getting ready for bed with the realization that I have a lesson to teach the next morning, and that I haven’t planned it yet. The nice thing about speaking lessons, of course, is that they don’t require a whole lot of advanced planning – just a topic and enough activities or questions to keep a conversation going for the whole hour.  But you still have to come up with something beforehand.

With my more advanced students, I tend to fall back on riddles. They’re hard in a second language, since English riddles (like our jokes) tend to make such heavy use of wordplay. But talking through the double meanings is a fun way to improve my students’ vocabularies, and I’m always looking for a good way to stretch their critical thinking muscles.

And then, of course, I ask them for some examples of their own. For whatever reason, this is typically met with resistance. “Mongolia has many riddles,” they often respond, as though I’d asked them to provide an exhaustive list.

Of course it does; I don’t know of any languages that don’t. I’d love to do a sociolinguistic research project on the subject of riddles: their importance in various cultures, the ways in which they are used, the kinds of logical twists that must be followed in order to guess the answers. Alas, my copy of Speech Play and Verbal Art is back in Chicago, and so I’ve no analysis to inject into this post, nor any cross-cultural examples to present to you.

Instead, I’m collecting my own list of Mongolian examples. “Tell me some,” I insist to my students when they continue to dither. They’re resisting for the same reason I’m persisting: translation is a difficult exercise, and I want them to practice it. And while not all riddles make sense in translation, the Children’s Palace director managed to provide me with a few that did.

1. Ten sons of father are very hard workers; ten daughters of mother are too lazy.

2. Далан давхар хувцастай – It wears seventy layers of clothes.

3. Өглөө дөрвөн хөлтэй, өдөр хоёр хөлтэй, орой гурван хөлтэй – In the morning it has four legs, in the afternoon it has two legs, in the evening it has three legs.

I was particularly intrigued by the third one, given that we have the same riddle in English. I’d love to know whether that one cropped up independently in both languages or was borrowed by one from the other. Khongorzul, though a font of other kinds of information, did not know.

If, like me, you were unable to puzzle out the first two riddles without further information, here are some hints: #1 is something everyone has; #2 is a kind of food.

If you’ve any more riddles from other languages to add to my collection, please leave them in the comments! I’d like to write a more thoughtful post on the subject when I have time to do it justice.


And to think I call myself an English major

… well, actually, I don’t. I call myself a linguistics major. But I’m a linguistics major who attempted to double-major in literature until I realize that it would mean taking four lit classes in a single semester during my senior year, at which point I said, “I’d like sleep and sanity, please and thank you,” and minored in rhetoric instead. But I still consider myself an English major. I write like one, as anyone who’s seen my Academic Writing will attest. I text in fully punctuated, grammatically correct sentences. I giggle at terrible grammar jokes. I dither about whether to footnote/endnote inside or outside the punctuation at the end of my sentences. I believe firmly in the importance of the Oxford Comma (an opinion upon which I think Hitler and JFK would, for the sake of their dignity, agree).

And for as long as I can remember, I’ve been The Girl Who Corrects Everyone’s Grammar. I’ve been doing it for so long that I can’t actually think of any specific instances in which I’ve corrected people, though I’m sure my friends and family will be happy to provide them once this is posted. I tell my friends it’s part of my charm, and they agree – whereupon they cheerfully and deliberately bombard me with misuses of there/their/they’re, it’s/its, and your/you’re. Or they refer to things as “addicting” in order to make me twitch.* But I digress.

Living in a non-English speaking country does things to your English. When addressing nonnative speakers, you slow down, over-enunciate, and simplify. First to go, of course, are the complex rhetorical structures you’ve spent your academic life perfecting. You condense your modal verbs, abandon all words longer than three syllables, discard objects and articles with wild abandon. You affix tag questions to your queries, having realized once the phrase is halfway uttered that your listener won’t catch the upward inflection that marks it as a question.** You try to keep your speech as unmangled as possible, for the sake of your higher-level learners, but sometimes the oversimplification in the name of understanding is often necessary.

And then, somehow, it starts leaking into your everyday English. Latinate words elude you, and you find yourself Googling the finer points of grammar as complex constructions grow unfamiliar.  And then one day, the dam gives way altogether, and you answer a request to turn up the stove with a beauty like, “That’s the most hotter it gets.”***

I suppose it was inevitable, then, that I might find my more advanced students asking me to correct their grammar more often.

I should note, I suppose, that most of my classes are not grammatically-focused. I figure that if these students want lessons on exactly how to structure their sentences, they can get it from Mongolian teachers who will actually be able to explain them in ways the students will understand – with my limited Mongolian, I can do this only for the students with the most advanced English. Instead, my focus is typically on getting them to speak. I try to make them use their English aloud, in contexts outside of the grammatical exercises that many seem to think are the only ways in which they can practice and learn.

Especially with my elementary-level learners, my desire to observe the niceties of grammar has long since been superseded by the desire for meaningful communication. I’ve seen a lot of students who spend most of their time in silence, too terrified of making a mistake to open their mouths, and that kind of environment is the last thing I want to foster. If my students want to talk, I tend to let them. Obviously, in the classes in which I actually teach grammar, I’m picky about whatever structure we’ve been focusing on that day. But if they don’t obstruct my understanding, I tend to let a lot of errors go.

I used Ryan Woodward’s Thought of You  in my high school speaking class last month. This beautiful short film made the rounds on Facebook when it first came out on Vimeo a few years ago, but I’m embedding it here anyway. You don’t need to watch it to understand my point, but you should anyway, because it’s just that gorgeous.

After we had watched, I asked my students to tell me about the video. They hit the basics pretty quickly: It’s a love story. There is a man and a woman. They are dancing. They are drawings. The man leaves and the woman cries. Without any prompting from me, they also identified crucial shift at the video’s climax: the woman is white at the beginning and black at the end; the man is the opposite. “Why do you think that is?” I asked them, and the room fell silent, as it does almost every time I ask them, “why?”

And then I heard the voice of the smallest girl, the one who never speaks up unless I specifically call on her and false starts three or four times whenever she tries to answer the question.

“Maybe… she is at beginning not love him, and he is love her. Next, she is fell, and he is not love her.”

It took her a long time to stumble to stumble through this grammatical nightmare of an utterance, but I was impressed with her nonetheless. Grammatically correct or not, the meaning was clear, and she had done an excellent job of explaining her interpretation within the narrow confines of her limited vocabulary.

Moreover, it was a tricky question to start with. The Mongolian education system, from what I’ve seen, puts a great deal of emphasis on listening to the teacher talk, and little to none on critical thinking. Even fairly high-level students, when asked a why question as simple as, “Why do you like basketball?” will often answer with a shrug of the shoulders or, “It’s interesting,” if they answer at all. Literary interpretation is not on the menu in their own tongue, much less a second language. So I certainly wasn’t about to interrupt my student in the midst of her answer, no matter how far it wandered from the tradition constraints of grammar. That she felt compelled to offer an interpretation was victory enough.

Obviously, this is a complicated topic that I’ve only touched upon, and that I’d like to address at length another time and with appropriate references to SLA theory. But at the moment, I’d like to hear from the other TEFL-ers among my readers. To what extent do you focus on grammar in your lessons? When do you start to switch your focus from “get them to talk” to “mold their English into something that adheres to standard grammatical rules”? And just how do you get those terrified beginners to talk?


* No, that’s not hyperbole. I really do twitch. And while addicting is a word, it’s not an adjective. Addictive, people. So much more elegant, in addition to being the right part of speech.

** And because it’s the structure most likely to be recognized as a question by speakers of a language that uses sentence-final question particles.

*** Uttered by a friend who shall here remain unnamed. He’s only been here a few months longer than I, so I’m sure it won’t be long before  I start to unleash my own grammatical monstrosities. My house grows glassier by the day.

1 Comment

Scotch all the things!

Kleenex. Xerox. Band-aid. While I’m sure you could all add to the list, these are probably the most famous examples of brand names that have become genericized – a process known as synecdoche or or eponymy, depending on whose terminology you’re using (literary or legal; I swear there’s another linguistic term for it, but my notes are all on the other side of the world). On its own, the process is well know, probably of interest only to the companies in danger of losing their trademark protection. But here, I’ve seen another layer or two of added manipulation: translation.

The dictionary, paper or online, translates tape as тууз. But then again, my dictionary also gave be банзал for skirt. That may once have been its primary meaning, but no longer; now, it’s a vulgar term for a woman who, were she wearing skirts, would have them up around her waist more often than not. When they mean the garment rather than a wanton woman, the Mongolians use the Russian юбка (metathesized, after the Mongolian pattern, to sound like “yoo-pick,” though I’m guessing the Russians say “yoob-ka”). The dictionaries do not reflect this usage, refusing to acknowledge that the Russian word is used at all, much less in preference to the Mongolian term.

Likewise, I have never heard anyone call tape тууз. Packing, duct, or otherwise, it makes no matter, they call it all скоч. If ever there was any recognition that the word is simply a transliteration of the brand name Scotch, it has long since vanished. They’ve even slapped on the regular -axstem to make it a verb: скочдох.

The expats use it as a verb too, albeit in a more limited context. To scotch is to cover something, usually paper, with packing tape as a cheap form of lamination. Laura promised to scotch the drawings we used as speaking prompts for the English Olympics, to make sure they would survive being handled by children all day; Jonathan scotched his Mongolian driver’s license  to keep the ink from wearing off.

I’ve learned the hard way to scotch any papers I’ll be using for multiple classes; if I don’t, they won’t last the day, much less the week. My students, on the whole, are rather lacking in the area of fine motor skills. For today, I had planned to pass out slips of paper with questions and answers and have the students trade around until they had a matching set (Where do your friends play soccer? My friends play soccer at the park.), then put out four pictures that corresponded to the pictures and have the groups find each other. This plan was somewhat hindered, however, by the fact that my students had managed to lose three of the slips and tear a fourth within the span of about five minutes. I hadn’t thought it unreasonable to give a few pieces of paper to a group of sixteen-year-old boys and get them back intact, but it took only those few minutes to make it clear that I had misjudged my students.

Truly, I ought not to have been so surprised. The myriad construction paper aids I’ve used in my teacher’s classes have fared little better. The teachers have at least managed not to lose any of my little cards, but they’ve certainly given them a beating. I’ve played a memory/matching game as a vocabulary exercise on multiple occasions, and I’m frankly surprised the cards have survived at all. Most of the teachers seem not to know any way of picking them up besides a whole-handed pinching motion that usually bends the cards in half, even the women with fingernails long enough to slip beneath a piece of paper.

I don’t mean to conclude, or even imply, that all Mongolians are ham-handed; the popularity of cross-stitch kits and the intricacy of their traditional crafts and clothing give the lie to that. But the fact remains that this is a rugged country ill-suited to delicate things – be they shoes, appetites, or teaching materials. That goes double for anything to be handled by a pack of sixteen-year-old boys. So the next hour will find me at my desk, rewriting questions on larger, harder-to-lose pieces of paper.

And scotching them.