Language learning and Mongolian – a few thoughts

Wednesday we took our Mongolian language final. I may still have the vocabulary of a very small child, but at least I can tell you I rode a horse and milked a cow in four different tenses. Now that the language class has come to an end, I thought I’d share a few pearls of wisdom/random facts I’ve picked up over the last couple of months.

Since there are like three million people in Mongolia, and Mongolian isn’t spoken in any other country, I’m guessing most of you don’t know anything about the language. Which is good news for me, since it means that almost anything I write here will be at least mildly informative.

1. It really bothers me that I’m two months into my time here in Mongolia and I still don’t know how to say “please.”

Actually, scratch that, it’s not that I don’t know how to say “please,” it’s just that there’s no stand-alone word for it. There are more polite ways to say things, and less polite ways to say things. And unfortunately, the less polite, informal way of saying or asking something is usually less complicated than the polite, formal way of saying something. So I only ever remember the informal bits that make me come off a bit clipped and rushed.

2. In Mongolian, everything has a suffix.

Mongolian grammar usually involves slapping a suffix on a word to convey meaning. Examples – possession, as well as the words with, have, by, for, and please, are all expressed in Mongolian by putting a suffix on the end of the word.

3. When in the countryside, you can convey a surprising amount of information just by using vocabulary for various livestock species.

Example 1 – Someone says “sheep” and points to the southeast (“hun” is how you pronounce it in Mongolian). Clearly, this is an indication that your host dad has gone off to herd the sheep. He probably took the motorcycle and will be back shortly, say maybe 15 or 20 minutes.

Example 2 – Your host dad points at you, points at the clock, and then says “horse” (pronounced “mor” in Mongolian). Obviously, it is time to leave for language class. You will be taking the horse. Don’t be late.

Let's herd some animals, ya'll.
Let’s herd some animals, ya’ll.

4. It really is worth trying to learn the language.

A couple of anecdotes:

Maybe about a month ago, a couple of my friends and I were walking near downtown UB, and we ran into an elderly couple. They were here on a mission for a couple of years, teaching English, and they didn’t speak a word of Mongolian. Towards the beginning of their trip, someone had told them that they shouldn’t try to learn Mongolian. They were there to teach English. Learning Mongolian wouldn’t be helping the students at all, in fact it might even be doing them a “disservice.” They took that person’s advice, and didn’t attempt to pick up any Mongolian, because, why bother?

Similarly, I was talking with my UB host mom recently (she’s speaks wonderful English) and she was telling me that on a recent business trip, she had been so surprised to meet an American who spoke seemingly perfect Korean. Why was she surprised, you wonder? Because, despite working with expats for several years at an NGO in Ulaanbaatar, as well as interning in New York for several months, my host mom has never met an American that speaks a second language, besides English. And you know what? She still hasn’t. Because the guy she met, the one who spoke Korean, wasn’t even American.

I’m not trying to make any sweeping generalizations here, but I think it’s safe to say that most Americans don’t prioritize learning a second language in the scope of their education.  Which is really, really unfortunate in my opinion. And also unfortunately, I am a member of that category. Sure, I’ve taken Spanish classes on and off for five years or so, but I still have little more than basic proficiency.The process of learning a second language is so rewarding – just think how many more people you can get to know and perspectives you can be privy to.

You’ve heard of a bucket list, right? Well, I’ve had “gain fluency in a second language” on mine for about as long as I’ve had a list. And it’s time to put my words into action. One thing I’m taking from this trip is inspiration to redouble my efforts to gain fluency in a second language.

Because I think the importance of it cannot be understated. And because I’m all about walking the walk, not just talking the talk!

One year from now, I’d like to be able to look back on this blog post and be proud of the progress I’ve made becoming fluent in a second language.

What are your thoughts on the importance of learning a foreign language?

P.S. Here’s a picture of a ger, because this post doesn’t have enough pictures….


Also, check it out! Solar power! A lot of gers in the countryside have these little solar panels they use to power a light, the TV, etc. Pretty nifty, huh?

– Heather Cook, DUSA blogger


It’s not always going to be yaks and yurts

I was messaging with a friend recently who was asking about my experience in Mongolia thus far. At one point he inquired if my program was at all rigorous or if it was proving to be all “yaks and yurts.” Not quite all yaks and yurts, I replied. Of course, he was talking about academics, but I found myself thinking how no part of my study abroad semester was all “yaks and yurts.”

Study abroad academics are often seen as a chance to take classes that are kind of silly, or different, or totally unique to the culture you’re living in. Like bag-piping, or South African botany, or Mongolian language. Most importantly, it’s a chance to take classes that you would never have a chance to take on your campus at home. With SIT Mongolia, I’m taking classes that cover topics like geopolitics and Mongolian pastoralism. And while those may sound like more serious topics, the structure of the classes are still quite informal, mainly due to the sheer number of guest lectures and field excursions we have. Still, the classes raise some very interesting questions that have global resonance but are still totally unique in the context of Mongolia

A recent class visit to a copper mine in Erdenet, Mongolia. We look at issues of conservation and mining development.
A recent class visit to a copper mine in Erdenet, Mongolia. We look at issues of conservation and mining development.
Buddhist temple in Sainshand, Mongolia. A place of considerable religious and cultural significance, it is also looking towards serious industrial development.
Buddhist temple in Sainshand, Mongolia. A place of considerable religious and cultural significance, it is also looking towards serious industrial development.

It is way too easy to romanticize living and traveling in a country like Mongolia. Regardless of what you imagine when you think of Mongolia, the majority of my time is actually not spent blazing across the steppe on camel-back, herding goats and sheep with my best nomad friends. In fact, as one of my classmates pointed out recently, the time spent doing really cool stuff can sometimes seem pretty disproportionate to the time spent, say, surfing the Internet or trying to do homework (I say try because Mongolian language is effing hard and that class is kicking all of our butts).

In fact, living in Mongolia is usually pretty unglamorous.

Take the city, for example. Living in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, is not exactly, shall we say, easy. It’s a city that’s congested and polluted and can simply seem overwhelming. And we spend a lot of time in the city.

Besides city life, there’s language. Having the vocabulary of a toddler gets old pretty darn fast. It makes connecting with anyone who doesn’t speak English difficult, to put it mildly. It also makes simple errands like grocery shopping or going to the bank a daily lesson in humility.

Finally, there’s the regular ups and downs of life that, when put in the context of a different culture and country, can make daily life just that much more difficult. Normal, petty upsets can sometimes seem exacerbated because of the foreignness of everything.

But all that’s okay. Believe it or not, it’s those unglamorous days, when you’re feeling grumpy and stretched to your breaking point, that force you to grow and adapt. At home, the familiar surroundings and routine allow most everything that happens to slide away like water off a duck’s back. In a strange city, in a ger on the steppe, in a new host family’s apartment, however, the small details that escape you at home become oh-so-obvious in your new environment. Hence the growing and learning.

It’s a beautiful thing. And it’s why I wanted a study abroad semester that would be a challenge. I didn’t want all yaks and yurts. Okay, in a literal sense, I totally did, but figuratively speaking, you know what I mean. I wanted to have days where I would sit there wondering what the *!$% I had gotten myself into. So I try to remember that during the days when I only want to curl up in my bed at home and eat pumpkin cheesecake.

At the same time, there has not been a single moment when I have regretted my study abroad choice – I’m so glad I picked the program and the location that I did, and I can’t wait for the remaining six weeks I have here. So if you haven’t yet gone abroad and/or are looking at where you might want to go, take time to really think about what you want from the experience (there are no wrong answers to that question) and consider the dividends that can be gained when it’s not all yaks and yurts.

– Heather Cook, DUSA Blogger

For further study abroad adventures, check out Heather’s personal study abroad blog,