Learning Inner Mongolian (2): Spelling pronunciations as a method of teaching

I initially taught myself the traditional Mongolian script in 2008. It was always a struggle to keep the script fixed in mind and even more difficult to hazard a reasonable guess at the pronunciation of written texts. Learning the script in a formal setting is finally helping me to make sense of the system and become more comfortable tackling texts written in it.

Since nobody appears to have publicly described what is involved in learning this script, especially the way it is normally taught, I’ll set down my observations for those who are interested. (Unfortunately I missed a month of classes in September, but that doesn’t detract significantly from the overall description.)

Note concerning romanisation: There are many transliterations of Mongolian. Here I will use the school’s romanisation, in preference to the romanisation I have used in the past. This is again different from that in textbooks that the class is using.

The Mongolian traditional script has two very striking characteristics:

  1. There is a very large gap between the way words are spelt and the way words are spoken. For example, dʒirukhe ‘heart’ is pronounced dʒurkh (dzurkh in Mongolia, Cyrillic зүрх), neguresu ‘coal’ is pronounced nuurs (Cyrillic нүүрс), delbigur ‘hand-held fan’ is pronounced delvuur (Cyrillic дэлвүүр), etc.
  2. The phoneme inventory is underspecified in the script. That is, there are a number of letters that are ambiguous as to pronunciation, especially in isolation. While the correct pronunciation is often clear from rules of interaction within the word (often related to vowel harmony), there are still a number of sounds written with the same letter (e.g., t and d, g and x, ɔ and ʊ, o and u). In such cases, it may be possible to rule out one alternative if it is a non-existent word. In others, two different words may be written the same way (e.g. gereltuxu, Cyrillic гэрэлтэх gereltex, ‘twinkle’ and xerelduxu, Cyrillic хэрэлдэх xereldex, ‘fight, argue’), making context very important.

dʒirukhe = dʒurkh = Mongolian dzurkh (Cyrillic зүрх)


neguresu = nuurs = Cyrillic нүүрс


delbigur = delvuur = Cyrillic дэлвүүр

xerelduxu gereltuxu

xerelduxu OR gereltuxu = Cyrillic хэрэлдэх or гэрэлтэх

Written form first, colloquial form later

The most striking feature of the way the script is taught in the classes I am attending is that students are being taught spelling pronunciation, totally excluding the spoken language. For instance, the word for ‘coal’ is memorised as neguresu (not as nuurs); ‘goat’ is memorised as imaga (not jamaa); ‘potato’ is memorised as tomusu (not toms); ‘eye’ is memorised as nidu (not nud); ‘glove’ is memorised as begelei (not beelii); ‘trumpet’ is memorised as buriye (not buree); ‘coral’ is memorised as ʃiru (not ʃur); ‘bowl’ is memorised as ajaga (not ajaG); ‘fish’ is memorised as dʒigasʊ (not dʒagas, Mongolian zagas); ‘vulture’ is memorised as jɔlʊ (not jɔl) etc. The differences are so extensive that reading out a text in spelling pronunciation sounds totally different from normal spoken Mongolian.


imaga = jamaa = Cyrillic ямаа


tomusu = toms = Cyrillic төмс


nidu = nud = Cyrillic нүд


begelei = beelii = Cyrillic бээлий


buriye = buree = Cyrillic бүрээ


ʃiru = ʃur = Cyrillic шүр


ajaga = ajaG = Cyrillic аяга


dʒigasʊ = dʒagas = dzagas (Cyrillic загас)


jɔlʊ = jɔl = Cyrillic ёл

So thorough-going is the insistence on spelling pronunciations that students in the class who are not from a Mongolian-speaking background did not initially realise that they were not learning the actual Mongolian pronunciation. People only became aware when the teacher, at times, let slip that the ‘spoken’ or ‘colloquial’ pronunciation (Chinese: 口语 kǒuyǔ) of a word was different from what she was teaching. While some (non-literate) native speakers of Mongolian occasionally volunteer the ordinary spoken form, the use of these pronunciations is discouraged in class. I understand that adherence to the written pronunciation continues in higher classes until a certain point, when a switch is made to the spoken form. (At this stage in the course only individual vocabulary items are being taught. The question of pronouncing grammatical endings and particles, which are strikingly different from the spoken pronunciation, has not yet arisen.)

The intended effect of this policy is to inculcate written forms before tackling the spoken language. In fact, the school originally began teaching from the spoken language, but when it was discovered that students were developing very loose spelling habits it was decided to start with the written language instead, including strict adherence to written pronunciations, and switch over to spoken forms when the correct spelling practices were firmly established in students’ minds.

This approach contrasts quite strongly with that normally followed in the teaching of English, which is to teach spelling concurrently with pronunciation. When learning English students are taught that (for example) the word spelt ‘fight’ is pronounced /fait/, the word spelt ‘give’ is pronounced /giv/, the word spelt ‘oven’ is pronounced /ʌvǝn/, etc. It is not normal to teach students to read out words and texts exactly as they are spelt first, and learn the actual pronunciation later on.

Reflection of local teaching practice

After discussions with Inner Mongolians I know, I’ve discovered that this approach to teaching mirrors the normal method for teaching to children to read in Inner Mongolia. Mongolian-speaking children start out learning to read words exactly as they are spelt. This means that, even though they speak Mongolian at home and already have a basic proficiency in the language, children are initially taught to read texts using spelling pronunciations, not the normal everyday pronunciations. It is only in the third year that pupils are quite explicitly told to switch over to the spoken pronunciation. The objective of this method of teaching is clear. In a language like Mongolian, where the spelling of the traditional script is in many ways far removed from the spoken language, this is a way of ensuring that correct spelling habits are put firmly in place.

The implications of this approach for the perceptions of language are interesting to contemplate. While speakers of Mongolian in Inner Mongolia and Mongolia can communicate with each other quite freely (allowing for differences in pronunciation and vocabulary), perceptions of writing and spelling appear to differ markedly between the two. Despite the primacy that linguists give to speech, it stands to reason that the habits acquired when learning the script as a child last a lifetime and cannot help but mould the way that words and their ‘canonical forms’ (including acceptable variation) are perceived. My impression from admittedly limited experience with native speakers is that the different writing systems have a subtle impact on the way that language is perceived and handled. This is a topic that appears to have received virtually no study.

For non-native speakers learning the language, the consequences are less subtle. With ordinary spoken language banished from the classroom, an important aspect of language acquisition is blocked out until a much later stage in the learning process. This effectively postpones acquisition of the spoken language for several years and makes it difficult for teachers to develop even simple verbal strategies at an early stage to help students acquire the language, for instance by using spoken Mongolian for certain aspects of communication in the classroom.

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2 Responses to Learning Inner Mongolian (2): Spelling pronunciations as a method of teaching

  1. This brings memories. I taught myself English from videogames, and the videogames of my childhood were text-only. As a result, I actually learned English spelling-pronounciations before the spoken language, and to this day I still often mispronounce words using my own absurd spelling-based idiolect.

    I think the two characteristics you cite above are the rule rather than the exception—most “phonetic” writing systems are at some distance from actual speech, and both over- and under-specify phonemes. For example, Brazilian Portuguese [ʎ] is spelt as ‹lh› in filha (from Latin filia) and as ‹li› in família (L. familia)—for purely arbitrary reasons, the standard spelling of the latter is more conservative. Literate speakers will insist they pronounce the two words differently, even though they don’t. On the other hand, there’s no way to represent the lowering of unstressed final vowels—[o.vʊ] is spelled ‹ovo›, [le.mɪ] ‹le.me›; and the letter ‹x› can stand for all of [s, ʃ, ks, z, ∅].

    Recall that this is a direct descendant of Latin, the language for which the Latin alphabet was designed; even then, there’s such a gulf.

    From your description, Mongolian might have it worse, though (like French or English). I’m curious about something: if someone try to speak the language using the spelling pronounciations (say a language learner), will it be intelligible? In Brazilian Portuguese it would sound unnatural and strange, but still intelligible; while in English it would prevent communication (as I learned the hard way, trying to call a taxi in Arizona). But if Mongolians learn spelling-pronunciations in school…

    • khanbaliqist says:

      Well, since I’m not a native speaker and don’t have enough knowledge of the language, I can’t say one way or another. But you have to remember that this is about Inner Mongolian. Perhaps you would be understood if you spoke like a book in Inner Mongolia, given that kids learn it that way in school. But in Mongolia, where Cyrillic is universally used in written communication, I think you would have much greater difficulty being understood if you pronounced words as they are spelt in the traditional alphabet (in addition to being rejected as a weirdo). The traditional alphabet is taught at school in Mongolia (I’m not sure of the method used), but most people forget it since they never use it.

      I listed those two general characteristics as a rough explanation of why the traditional script is normally considered difficult to learn and read. I agree that those problems exist in many writing systems, even ‘phonetic’ ones, but the old Mongolian script happens to have them very bad.

      Mongolian has seven vowels according to the Cyrillic orthography: а э и о у ө ү. Of these, о and у are written identically in initial syllables, as are ө and ү. Moreover, о у ө ү are all written identically in non-initial syllables. In addition, а and э are distinguished only as an initial vowel (except in many foreign words, where э is distinguished from а in all positions).

      Because а о у and э ө ү form two separate groups under vowel harmony, a word just needs to have an indication of vowel harmony in order for а to be distinguished from э, and о/у to be distinguished from ө/ү. Indication of vowel harmony is found mainly in words containing the consonants х and г, and in words beginning with а or э (distinguished in initial position). Where no indication is given, there is no way of deciding between а and э. Even where the vowel harmony category of the word is clear, there is never any way of distinguishing between о and у or ө and ү.

      I think this is somewhat more severe than what is found in most alphabetic scripts.