A Toddler at 50
I am two again. This language sounds like squirrel chatter, or bricks in a blender. My tongue is of a foreign model seemingly incapable of producing these vowels and consonants! I say just what my teacher says but get corrected repeatedly. It is thrilling to be able to pronounce simple words like сүү (milk) or талик (bread);I feel really smart when I conquer усан үзэм (grape) and гүзээлзцгэнэ (strawberry).
After a while, studying Mongolian has begun to feel like a child’s trip to the countryside: exciting but overwhelming. The miles are tedious and unending; there are frequent stops and U-turns, but there are also beauty and surprises along the way. Sometimes I race down the trail, absorbing new grammar quickly. Other days I cannot remember words I have used a million times. If I keep getting back in the car, perhaps I will get closer to my destination: fluency.
After 16 months, my tongue usually cooperates. Those chunky consonants have separated into words, and words have come together to carry thoughts. I like to listen to dialogue among students as I walk past the university and eavesdrop. It used to be that I could only recognize repeated sounds like уу (owe) or үү (oo), indicating a question. Then words began to jump out at me. Now I can usually get the general flow of conversations.
My husband and I used to challenge one another to talk with five people before we got home. Speaking with strangers has been the most terrifying but rewarding part of language study. Invariably, my patient listener ends the conversation with: “сайн сурж байна (good studying)” or “сайн яэрж байна (good talking).” Mongolians seem to appreciate our effort to speak with them.
As you well know, however, language is not about sounds and sentences—it is about people and communication. One of my favorite things to do in our city Ulaan Batar is to walk with an older woman across an icy street. Linked arm in arm we scoot through traffic, talking about how cold or smoky it is. Often the conversation lasts beyond the sidewalk as we discuss our age, children, birthplaces, and more.
Games, flash cards, stick figures, gestures. Baг багаар (little by little) I see progress. I want to be able to connect with women heart to heart, to hear their hurts, struggles, and triumphs. Ups, downs, highs, lows: all part of the journey.