Spicks & Specks
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Learning Inner Mongolian (1)

24 October 2012

One reason this blog has become sporadic of late is that I’ve started attending beginner-level Mongolian classes once a week at Minzu University. The classes started in September, but thanks to three weeks in Tokyo and the Chinese national day holiday (十一 shí-yī), I only really started attending in mid-October. Here I’d like to cover some of my impressions.


Earlier attempts at learning Mongolian (conversation and grammar) from several different private teachers during my two or so years in Ulaanbaatar left me frustratingly unable to speak the language, partly because of laziness, partly because of my linguistic environment (surrounded by Chinese speakers, subject to unpredictable work commitments, etc.), partly because of this website. I hope to rectify this with classes in Beijing.

My specific goals in attending these classes are to (1) learn the traditional script and (2) improve my conversation skills. I rather optimistically thought I could just consolidate my rather shaky grasp of the traditional Uighur script and then move on to some kind of conversation and reading classes. But it appears that is not to be. The approach here is quite different from what I have experienced previously, and I’m now basically a starting-level student starting out all over again.

In this first post, I’d like to look at some pronunciation glitches that get in the way more than I thought they would. Since I already have established pronunciation habits, starting out on a new pronunciation standard, even when the differences are quite small, was always going to be tricky. A couple of the problems I’ve found:

a. The pronunciation of (э): Among the vowels, the most striking difference from what I learnt in UB is the pronunciation of the vowel (traditional script) or э (Cyrillic). In Mongolia this is a very close /e/, in some cases quite close to /i/. In the Inner Mongolian standard (although not in all dialects of Inner Mongolia) it is /ə/. Since I already use the Mongolian /e/, it is quite an effort to preserve this pronunciation when the teacher and the entire class are chanting /ə/! The alternative, that of wholeheartedly embracing the Inner Mongolian sound, is not very palatable, first because I don’t really want to swap accents in midstream, secondly because I don’t want to sound like an Inner Mongolian in Ulaanbaatar! This pronunciation difference is not an insurmountable obstacle, but it is proving harder to deal with than I thought.

In the music class, however, this handicap turns into an advantage. While the teacher is blithely teaching the class the standardised Inner Mongolian pronunciation of /ə/ in the lyrics, it becomes apparent when listening to the song itself that the vocalist is actually using /e/. It is quite striking how the teacher gradually and imperceptibly switches from /ə/ to /e/ as we repeatedly practise the song, without actually telling the students that this is what she is doing.

b. /ʊ/ and /o/ (Cyrillic у and ө): My great bugbear is distinguishing the pronunciation of vowels 5 and 6, /ʊ/ and /o/ (у and ө in Cyrillic). These sound almost completely identical in the speech of all the teachers, despite assertions that they are distinguishing them as clearly as possible. When pressed for an explanation, some teachers told me that ‘6 (ө) ends in a slight glide, thus: /ʊə/’ – although the glide seems to disappear in actual use! This is quite different from the relatively clear-cut difference I learnt in Mongolia (although admittedly I often find the vowel ө hard to distinguish in live speech).

In fact, I am starting to wonder whether the teachers at the school really have this difference in their own speech, or whether they are simply teaching it since it is supposed to be there under the Inner Mongolian standard. Apparently there are Inner Mongolian dialects where the distinction has been lost. I am still working on this one.

In my next post, I would like to look at how the writing system is handled.

leoboiko said on 04 January 2013 (9:44 pm)

That’s a general phenomenon, I think; speakers will insist they distinguish in speech certain spelling distinctions, even when they clearly don’t (just ask English speakers about the various mergers). Probably has to do with the psychological concreteness of the written word.

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