UW News

November 5, 2021

From the land of the Reindeer People to Red Square: Teacher brings the Mongolian language to the UW

In 2019, Azjargal Amarsanaa was hosting a tour group in the land of the “Reindeer People” — or Tsaatan, the nomadic reindeer herders who live in northern Mongolia — when she heard her interview to be a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant had been scheduled. The program brings instructors from around the globe to American colleges and universities to teach their native languages for an academic year.

Her interview was just two days away in Ulaanbaatar, the nation’s capital, and couldn’t be changed.

Without efficient transportation, she had to improvise. She jumped on a horse and rode three hours to get to the nearest family. She then traveled by motorcycle to the nearest town, took a van to her hometown of Murun, and then a bus to Ulaanbaatar.

More than 30 hours after her journey began, she arrived at her interview, so exhausted that she didn’t know what she was saying.

It didn’t work out, but she didn’t give up. She tried again in 2020, and due to the pandemic, the interview was virtual. With no geographic hurdles, she did well at her interview and was admitted into the program.

young woman sitting on rock with beautiful scenery behind her

Amarsanaa comes to the UW from the Khuvsgul province in Mongolia.

Now she has a much easier journey — by bus, across town — to teach the Mongolian language at the UW for the 2021-22 academic year. The course is offered by the East Asia Title VI National Resource Center in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

“I really wanted to be part of the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant program, rather than other programs, because I’m really proud of my culture and my language,” Amarsanaa said. “I am so excited that the UW is introducing Mongolian again after many years. I am fully energized when I come to campus and meet my students every day.”

Amarsanaa’s class is the first chance UW students have had to learn Mongolian in 15 years, says Paul Carrington, managing director of the East Asia Center. It’s the result of a collaboration among multiple UW departments, including history, Asian languages and literature, Near East languages and civilization, and environmental and occupational health sciences, which has a partnership with Bulgan Province in Mongolia.

Amarsanaa, pictured with English teacher Serdamba Jambalsuren, brings health supplies to Tsaaten children.

The U.S. Department of Education funded the initiative in recognition of the UW’s efforts to offer instruction in languages and cultures of minority ethnic groups facing persecution in China, like the Uyghur and Kazakh people. The Chinese government has begun to limit Mongolian language instruction in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region within China.

The Fulbright program initially reached out to the Jackson School about hosting Amarsanaa, because the school has a successful track record working with the program. The UW is hosting four other language assistants this school year, teaching Thai, Finnish, Turkish and Ukrainian.

Bolortsetseg Minjin, executive director of the American Center for Mongolian Studies, a US 501c3 org based in Mongolia, said: “We’re thrilled that the UW is not only teaching Mongolian again, but also with a resident Mongolian instructor … Learning a new language expands your horizons; with Mongolian, you also get a glimpse of our unique history and culture, which goes past the present-day Mongolia to various diaspora groups around the world.”

young woman on the back of a reindeer

Amarsanaa rides a reindeer in East Taiga, Khuvsgul province, Mongolia, while visiting the Tsaatan in August 2018.

Amarsanaa teaches Monday through Thursday, using instructional materials developed and made available by the center. On Friday, she holds an optional session where she teaches cultural concepts, hosts guest speakers or meets with students one-on-one. She brought storybooks and other items from home to share her country’s rich oral history and heritage. She’s also connecting students with pen pals in Mongolia to help them develop their writing skills and strengthen their cultural understanding.

Four students are taking Amarsanaa’s class the first quarter, and they all have unique motivations for taking Mongolian. One Chinese studies student wants to better understand the Mongolian people because they are one of China’s ethnic minorities. A history student will use his knowledge of Mongolian to read historical documents, while another will be able to supplement his study of a language related to Mongolian, called Khitan.

For one student, the reason is more personal.

“I am from Inner Mongolia but was not able to attend Mongolian-speaking schools when I was young,” said Lillian Liu, a student in environmental and occupational health sciences. “Having this opportunity to study Mongolian is a remedy for my ‘nostalgia,’ and I feel like I can connect to my roots better.”

For Amarsanaa, teaching Mongolian is not only about celebrating her country’s language and culture — it’s also about taking what she learns home.

Living in the United States is giving Amarsanaa the opportunity to improve her English, pick up the nuances of the language and gain an understanding of American culture. She’ll use this knowledge to enhance her lessons as an English teacher when she returns to Mongolia after the program is over.

In the countryside where she’s from, students don’t study academic English — the kind that will help them pass tests they need to study or work abroad, like the TOEFL or IELTS. That education is only available in big cities like Ulaanbaatar, not remote communities like her own. She plans to start a language center where children in the countryside can gain these skills.

And she’ll continue to visit the nomadic Tsaatan people. In the summer, she brings tour groups to the Tsaatans’ home in northern Mongolia. While she’s there, she also teaches English to the children, bringing along a mobile library of English-language childrens books and health supplies, like toothbrushes.

Young woman with four children, bent over a collection of childrens books

Tsaaten children examine the books Amarsanaa brought to them as part of a mobile library.

Eventually she’d like to return to the United States to get a master’s degree in education or linguistics, which is what she studied as an undergraduate at the National University of Mongolia. She’s already pursuing a project that could be the basis of a thesis.

The language spoken by the Tsaatan people, called Tuvan, is under threat. Tsaatan children no longer speak Tuvan in school and might learn it only from elders, like their grandparents. Amarsanaa is working with her contacts among the Tsaatan to record videos of people speaking the language. She wants to compile the videos into an online “talking dictionary,” an interactive tool that documents Tuvan words and phrases, as a way to preserve the language before it is gone.

For Amarsanaa, it’s all about love for her community and empowering Mongolian children to do what she’s gotten a chance to do as a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant.

“I want to open the gates to enable them to go abroad, get scholarships, get higher education and then come back home to their town,” she said. “That’s my mission.”