Teaching Mongolian in the PRC: Written Trumps Spoken & Befuddles the Foreign Learner

The khanbaliqist has written an informative and witty post, Spelling Pronunciations as a Method of Teaching, based on his own experiences learning Mongolian on the ground . . . in Inner Mongolia, I believe.

His description of how written Mongolian is emphasized—almost to the point of banning spoken Mongolian from the classroom—reminds me of my mother’s unhappy schooling in Taiwan many years ago.  Her teacher, whom I referred to as a “Beiping antique” (北平古董), was born in pre-1949 Beijing and taught strictly “proper” Mandarin.  The vocabulary she insisted on was so passé that my mother, whose Chinese was actually not bad, often found that the locals hadn’t a clue what she meant.

She eventually quit school out of frustration.  “The only people who speak Beijing hua here in Taipei,” she said at the “farewell” lunch to which she kindly invited her living-fossil teacher and me, “are you and my son.”

But back to the way Mongolian is taught in China. Writes the khanbaliqist:

After discussions with Inner Mongolians I know, I’ve discovered that this approach to teaching [in my class] 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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