Fun with Mongolian Cyrillic!

Yes, I know I haven’t added a new post in a couple weeks. I’ve been busy finishing a huge paper for my Master’s program that technically isn’t due until I officially graduate but I wanted to get done before I leave for Mongolia (which is only like a week away now! Ahhhh!). So I haven’t done anything to prepare for my upcoming adventure, but if you ever wanted to read a 34-page paper about improving health care access for nomadic populations, I’ve got you covered!

I mentioned in my last post that the writing system used in Mongolia is the Cyrillic alphabet, which is the basis of many of the languages spoken across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Here’s the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet with the approximate English sounds below each letter:

Mongolian Cyrillic Alphabet

Doesn’t look too difficult at first glance, right? Heck, a good chunk of the Cyrillic letters seem to be the same letters we use in English!

Except it’s trickery! Lies! Sure, some of the letters are the same (e.g., M and T), but that’s just to lure you into a false sense of security. C’mon! Their B is our V, their H is our N, their P is our R, and they even have a weird backwards R that is nothing like our R!

Plus, there are entirely too many vowels: 13 letters out of the 35-letter alphabet are vowels! If you include the long vowels (basically doubling up the short vowels in the alphabet) and the numerous diphthongs (combinations of 2-3 different vowels), you end up with way more vowel sounds than my brain can comprehend or differentiate. I honestly cannot tell the difference between some of the sounds, even after watching several videos and listening to a bunch of audio tracks.

Several of the volunteers who are already over in Mongolia have told us newbies not to worry about trying to figure out the language until we get there, as it’s infinitely easier to learn when you actually have a real live teacher (and 4 hours of language class a day, and live with a host family that doesn’t speak any English, and have the looming threat of getting kicked out of the Peace Corps if you don’t learn the language well enough during pre-service training). So instead, I’ve made flash cards of the Cyrillic letters so that I will at least be able to read the words I’ll be learning how to say.

And there’s a small bit of comfort in knowing that at least we won’t have to learn this:

What the?

What the?

That, my friends, is the Traditional Mongolian script, which was the official writing system in Mongolia until 1946, when the Soviets introduced Cyrillic. It’s still used for some official government documents, and it’s used in Inner Mongolia along with Chinese, but for the most part, Mongolians in Mongolia use Cyrillic. Which is great, because just looking at that picture gives me a headache and reminds me that things could be worse.

Random Mongolia Fact #7: The Mongolian Language

I will obviously be learning the language spoken in Mongolia during my 3 months of pre-service training, and that language is *drum roll* Mongolian! No, they do not speak Chinese. No, they do not speak Russian*, although if someone were to look at a random sign in Mongolia they might assume Russian is the national language…

Mongolian sign

Uhhhh, yeah, that’s what I was gonna say

People who are familiar with what Russian looks like could be forgiven for thinking Mongolians speak Russian, because they both use the Cyrillic alphabet**. Back when Mongolia was a satellite of the Soviet Union, Mongolians were forced to adopt the Cyrillic alphabet, and it just kinda stuck.

Anyway, the Mongolian language is the most well-known member of the Mongolic language family, which itself is (according to some linguists but denied by others) a member of the larger Altaic language family, which includes the Turkic, Tungusic, Korean, and Japanese languages.

Mongolian is apparently a very difficult language to learn, not helped at all by the fact that it’s not really similar to any other language. So no matter what your native language is, trying to learn Mongolian as a foreign language will suck. Yay!

I’ve decided that learning at least a little bit of the language before I leave for Mongolia would be a good idea, although I haven’t gotten much further than struggling to comprehend the alphabet. But that’s a post for another time!


*Obviously there are some people in Mongolia who can speak Chinese or Russian, just like there are people in any country who can speak a foreign language. Here I’m referring to the national language of Mongolia.

**The Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet is only used in the country of Mongolia. People in Inner Mongolia (which, as you’ll remember, is part of China) still use the traditional Mongolian script.