The Losing Mongolian Language

Author: Guan Zhihan

Having a population of 5.8 million, Mongols in China are the ninth largest ethnic minority groups, who are mainly distributed across Inner Mongolia. Though Mongolian Chinese were incorporated into China for centuries, they still feature a distinct and long-standing nomadic culture.

However, these days, after a long period of living with Han Chinese, Mongolian Chinese are facing a cultural heritage crisis, reflected in its gradual disappearance of language. The Mongolian language of the ethnic group is becoming less spoken nowadays.

Specifically, the use of the language is mostly concentrated in daily communication among therural population; in the larger cities of minority areas, it is common to use Chinese (Mandarin) for both daily communication and official documents. (Ge,2019). Moreover, the language choice of the new generation also reflects that Mongolian language is no longer a preference. According to a research conducted by Ying Jun, only 14.1% of Mongolian college students would communicate with their siblings and peers in Mongolian.

The shift of dominant language in the area can be mainly attributed to three main factors: policies that discourage use of Mongolian and promote Mandarin, utilitarianism and a missing language environment.


Previously, before Jan 1, 2022, the language policy applied in Inner Mongolia was mainly based on  Regulations of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region for Mongolian Spoken-and Written-Language Work, promulgated in 2004.

The regulations stressed the dominant status of Mongolian in public affairs. By increasing investment in Mongolian teaching and setting more classes and majors taught in Mongolian language, the regulations highly encouraged people to learn Mongolian. The preferential policies were not only centered in education, but other areas in people’s daily life. For instance, when it comes to communication, the regulations also appealed to public media to apply more Mongolian language used in its broadcasting and publication, in various ways such as increasing the number of cast and crew who speak the language. The regulations also urge governments at all levels to support literal Mongolian products such as Mongolian newspapers and magazines. The effect could be influential. Mass media publications such as TV programmes, newspapers and magazines are an essential part of people’s lives.  It brings edutainment, exerting a subtle influence on the next generation. Also, along with the emphasis on  Mongolian education, new generations are likely to cultivate proficiency in using the language in this environment.

However, these regulations were abolished in 2022. Measures for Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to implement the Law on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language was revised on September 29, 2021 and took effect on Jan 1, 2022. The new policies first stresses that it is the standard Chinese, Mandarin, that has the place of common language throughout the region, establishing Chinese’s dominant position. The new measures replace the previous application of Mongolian with the standard Chinese in many fields. In education for example, schools and other educational institutions should take Mandarin as a basic educational and teaching language, withdrawing the previous preferential policy given to the education in Mongolian languages.

Inner Mongolia doubles down on China’s plan to teach key subjects in Mandarin despite protests ( Source: South China Morning Post )

This is along with the curriculum reform for Mongolian ethnic schools in 2020 which has spurred much controversy.According to this bilingual policy, Mongolian-medium schools, for instance, should conduct education in both the standard Chinese and Mongolian in accordance with law. Chinese language courses as a subject will be introduced a year earlier, changing from Grade 2 to Grade 1. Moreover, subjects such as Chinese, History as well as and Morality and Rule of Law will be taught using unified textbooks and fully in Chinese, applied in both primary, junior and senior high schools. These measures could affect students’ Mongolian learning. With limited attention, students now are facing a new challenge of learning both languages. Students will be required to take the university entrance examinations in Mandarin for the three subjects. This will require the student to take more time to consolidate their Chinese language learning. In this case, there is likely to be a decrease in time for students to learn Mongolian, thus affecting Mongolian language preservation. The direction of policy largely determines the position of a language in the local area. Inner Mongolia is now having a policy that promotes Mandarin and limits the use of Mongolian.

Utilitarian Considerations

As Chinese is gradually taking the dominant position in Inner Mongolia through new language policies, more opportunities and resources are also oriented to people able to use standard Chinese.

There is a sharp contrast nowadays in numbers between ethnic schools (Mongolian-medium schools that offer bilingual education) and mainstream schools (Chinese-medium schools) . Saqier, one of our interviewees from Sonid Right banner, a banner in Inner Mongolia that only has a permanent residents about 60000, has pointed out that there is only one Mongolian-medium kindergarten, primary school and junior high in the small county town where she lived.

And there is a boarding request for the Mongolian kindergarten. Young kids aged 3-5 are asked to leave their parents and live in the kindergarten for the whole week, in order to fully experience a Mongolian language environment. However, the worry that their children may not get good care can be a huge obstacle stopping parents from sending their children to these Mongolian-medium schools. In this situation, lacking students’ resources then becomes a serious concern for these Mongolian-medium schools. The problem of limited educational resources of ethnic schools has long been pointed out. For instance, in a research conducted by Ou, she mentioned: “for a child who receives monolingual Chinese, there are various schools at each level (elementary, junior, senior high) for him to choose from. By contrast, for a child in Mongolian-medium school, there is only one Mongolian elementary school, one Mongolian middle school and one Mongolian high school in the Former Mongolian Autonomous County of Goerroth. Such limited educational resources do not provide Mongolian people with diversified choices, and to a certain extent, affect their interest in bilingual education.” (Ou, 2011) Moreover, even after students in bilingual education take the University Entrance Examination in Mongolian and apply to a university, they will suffer from another plight that most universities offer too few majors taught in Mongolian. It is even more difficult for students who go to Mongolian-medium schools to find ideal future jobs, because nowadays most jobs require an ability of speaking Chinese. Nevertheless, there are a few parents who may choose to send their children to learn Mongolian in Mongolian-medium schools. A father we interviewed from Erenhot sent his two kids separately to the two kinds of school. Students taking bilingual education can have a lower required score to enter certain colleges than other high school candidates, while the ones in mainstream education have more opportunities to choose in education and jobs. The father is hoping one child to enjoy a degree of preferential policy in the university entrance examination and the other child to be competitive in the job market.

A missing language environment

Han Chinese and Mongolian Chinese have been living together for a century. According to the seventh national census of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in 2021, the total number of people in Inner Mongolia nowadays is 78.74% of Han Chinese and only 17.66% of Mongolians. In terms of numbers, Han Chinese, who speak Chinese, make up the majority in inner Mongolia. The intermingling of populations can bring about cultural intermingling, but also cultural domination. The main trend was the emigration of local ethnic people. Mongolians moving out into a new environment get to learn an entirely new culture and sometimes even language in order to integrate into the new culture. Many ethnic people may find there is no more language environment after the migration. Over time, they have gradually lost the ability to speak Mongolian. This phenomenon is particularly evident in the generation born in the 1980s, when waves of domestic migration bloomed with China’s reform and opening up. My mom once studied in a Mongolian-medium school and she was able to speak Mongolian in her childhood. However, after she emigrated to ShenZhen, a southern city in China, and lived there for over twenty years, she has already lost the ability to speak or read Mongolian.

Urbanization of Ulanqab, a city in Inner Mongolia

Meanwhile, the language environment in the local area is also suffering from a loss. With the new policies supporting the dominant status of Mandarin, most new media are present in the language of Chinese, instead of Mongolian. Especially as technology products possess an indispensable position in people’s life, there isn’t a well-developed or commonly-used social media platform in Mongolian. Previously, a social media platform designed in Mongolian called Bainu was popular among the Mongolians. However, since Wechat still captures a large user base, it isn’t as convenient as Wechat for users using Bainu. What’s more, nowadays, Bainu is no longer available in China to download. And as the Mongolian script is written vertically from left to right, it doesn’t fit in with existing online media platforms. These reasons leave Mongolian out of step with technology.


Language is a symbol of a culture. Mongolian language is a treasure of the distinct culture and has helped the culture to pass on to this day. Mongolian ethnic groups seem to be experiencing a language and culture loss. Some accept this change with sad resignation: “If it disappears naturally, because the language doesn’t meet our communication needs, rationally, then, I think the disappearance is acceptable. It just feels a little sad.” said by weibo user Nomadic notes.  By contrast, there are others who show confidence in the heritage of their culture. A Mongolian man who has moved to southern China for work told us: “ I actually have a lot of confidence in the heritage of our culture, because our generation has started to realize the importance of preserving traditional culture. We have begun to learn the Mongolian language and will look back on culture no matter where we are. This self-awareness is only getting deeper as days go by!” He is having Mongolian lessons regularly now, even though the place is far away from his home .


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A conversation with weibo user NomadicNotes | Weilu: CUHK

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