Teaching standard Mandarin pronunciation to Mongolian learners over the past hundred years

by Jiaye Wu

Mandarin Chinese, an emerging key world business language, has become a foreign language option for some UK students in recent decades. Research into state secondary schools in England shows that only 7-8% offered Chinese as a subject in 2005 with this number nearly doubling to 13% in 2015. By 2020, the UK government hopes to have 400,000 students enrolled in Mandarin courses. In China, although Mandarin is the first language of the majority Han population, 106.43 million or 8.41 percent of the total population in China are ethnic minorities who speak other languages. While a high number of these also learn Mandarin as a second language, how different is the Mandarin taught to them compared with that taught to the mother-tongue Han students or to foreign students worldwide? Has this changed over time? In this blog, I will showcase how one particular ethnic minority group in China, the Mongolians, have been taught Mandarin pronunciation over the last hundred years.

Since Chinese characters are not phonetic, that is, do not conform to a system of spelling where each letter broadly represents the same spoken sound, cut-and-splice quasi spelling (Fanqie, 反切; see also Mair, 1992) has been used to teach the pronunciation of monosyllabic Chinese characters for at least 1400 years. It was used, for example, in the rhyming dictionary Spelling Rhymes (Qieyun, 切韵), which was completed in 601 (Zgusta, 1992:126). Other later rhyming dictionaries also used this system, for example, Broad Rhymes (Guangyun, 广韵) in 1007 - 1008 and Kangxi Dictionary (Kangxi Zidian, 康熙字典) in 1716, with each entry using two other characters, one with the same initial sound as the word in question and one with the same final sound. For example, in such a dictionary, the word year (‘nian’, 年) would be described as ‘bird sky segmentation’ (bird ‘niao’鸟; sky ‘tian’天; segmentation ‘qie’切), meaning that ‘nian’ has the same onset as ‘niao’ and the same final sound as ‘tian’ and is hence pronounced ‘n+ian=nian’. However, because of the immense variation in Chinese dialects, the initial and final sound of characters are pronounced differently by different speakers, and therefore tend to be combined into diverse pronunciations of the target characters.

The Original Sounds of the Five Regions (Wufang Yuanyin, 五方元音) is a popular Mandarin Chinese rhyming dictionary, compiled between 1654 and 1664 (during the Qing dynasty) by Fan Tengfeng 樊腾凤 (Kaske, 2008: 50). A Mongolian official named Khaisan (1862/63-1917) adapted Fan’s dictionary to suit the needs of Mongolian learners of Mandarin Chinese in his edition of the dictionary entitled the Mongolian Han Original Sounds of the Five Regions (Menghan Hebi Wufang Yuanyin, 蒙汉合璧五方元音) published in 1917. He used traditional Mongolian scripts to transcribe the Mandarin pronunciation (see Figure 1, the characters in rows E and K are Mongolian). Like English, Mongolian has a fully alphabetic writing system, with separate letters for both consonants and vowels. Unlike English, it is written vertically from top to bottom. For example, he transcribed rice (fan, 飯) (Figure 1, D5) as ᠹᠠᠨ at E5. From this aspect, the Mongolian transliterations function similarly to the Latin alphabets the western missionaries adopted to transcribe Mandarin sounds (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 1: Khaisan (1917) Mongolian-Han bilingual original sounds of five regions


Figure 2: Wade and Hiller (1886) Progressive course designed to assist the student of Colloquial Chinese

Meanwhile, some monosyllabic Chinese characters were interpreted by Khaisan as bi-syllabic. Aspirates in Mandarin such as ‘w’ and ‘j’ were inserted between two vowels in Mongolian transliterations, like ‘uwa’ ᠦᠸᠠ and ‘ija’ ᠢᠶᠠ in order to mark the diphthongs ‘ua’ and ‘ia’ and act as a pronunciation aid. For example, the three Chinese characters 邊 (‘side’) 貶(‘derogatory’) 便 (‘convenience’) (see Figure 1, A2, C2, D2) are all pronounced monosyllabically in Mandarin as ‘bian’ but transcribed di-syllabically into ᠪᠢᠶᠠᠨ (see Figure 1, E2)

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, Standard Mandarin pronunciation was transcribed using pinyin, a phonetic notation system based on the Roman alphabet. The compilation of Mandarin textbooks for Mongolian students was centralized by the state-owned Inner Mongolia Education Press (Neimenggu Jiaoyu Chubanshe,内蒙古教育出版社). By the 1980s, textbooks aiming to teach Mongolian students Mandarin pronunciation included Pinyin, the corresponding Mongolian transliterations, and pictures. For example, in the 1986 textbook (see Figure 3), the pinyin en, (‘to press’) was accompanied by the Mongolian transliteration ᠡᠨ, alongside a picture of the Chinese word 摁.


Figure 3: Inner Mongolian Education Press (1986) Chinese textbook, volume 1

However, after thirty years of teaching Mandarin pronunciation in this manner (Pinyin-Mongolian-picture), the system was changed in the 2010s textbooks, where the Mongolian transliterations have been erased (see Figure 4). Interviews with three Mongolian teachers of Mandarin revealed that Mongolian transliterations are now regarded as unnecessary for Mongolian students, because their Mandarin is much better than their counterparts 30 years ago. Additionally, the use of Mongolian transliterations is perceived as having a negative effect on the student’s Mandarin pronunciation because the transliterations are only close sounds of Mandarin and they cannot reflect the four basic tones in Mandarin, given that Mongolian is not a tonal language. Mongolian students are encouraged by their teachers to learn Mandarin in more direct ways nowadays, for example, by reading Chinese textbooks which are compiled for the major Han students in their spare time. This is also reflected in the dramatic decrease of Mongolian translations of Chinese in textbooks over the last twenty years.


Figure 4: Inner Mongolian Education Press (2014) Chinese textbook, volume 1

To sum up, the role played by Mongolian transliterations in teaching the pronunciation of Mandarin as a second language to Mongolian students has declined in the past hundred years. At the same time, competence in Mandarin has increased among Mongolian students, and the ideology of standard Mandarin has also become stronger. China’s dramatic progress towards modernization, industrialization and globalization over the past two decades has surely played a role in this. Although official state policy promotes ethnic minorities, Mongolian seems to be losing speakers in China. Considering the protection of ethnic minority groups’ language rights and also their upward social mobility in a country where Mandarin is the common language, should we really be calling for second language users to demonstrate the same standard as mother tongue speakers? How should we better protect their ethnic languages?   

* This blog is also posted on the strict language sociolinguistics, language attitudes, language ideologies website


Fan, Tengfeng (1654-1664) Wufang Yuanyin 五方元音(Original Sounds of Five Directions). Beijing University Library

Kaske, Elisabeth (2008) The politics of language in Chinese education: 1895-1919. Brill: Netherlands

Khaisan (1917) Menghan Hebi Wufang Yuanyin 蒙汉合璧五方元音 (Mongolian Han Bilingual Original Sounds of Five Directions). Beijing Waiguan Hengshen Books store

Mair, Victor. (1992) A Hypothesis Concerning the Origin of the Term fanqie ("Countertomy"). SINO-PLATONIC PAPERS 34: 1-13.

Puthuval, Sarala (2017) Stages of language shift in twentieth-century Inner Mongolia, China. Linguistic Society of America 2, 28: 1-14

Rong, Ma (2007) Bilingual Education for China’s Ethnic Minorities. Chinese Education and Society 40 (2): 9-25 

Zgusta, Ladislav ed. (1992) History, Languages, and Lexicographers. Max Niemeyer Verlag Tübingen

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