Save an Endangered Language: Learn Tuvan


If you haven’t heard about our free endangered language courses, you’re seriously missing out. We are highlighting some of the world’s most interesting and lesser-known languages in an effort to revitalize interest in learning them, and ultimately – we hope – save them from extinction. Last time, we ventured to the Scottish highlands and got the lowdown on Scottish Gaelic, and today our journey takes us a little farther east.

You may or may not have heard of Tuvan, a lively Turkic language spoken by a nomadic group in the south-central region of Siberia. Keep reading and you might just find yourself itching to learn a few words!

Tuvan in a Nutshell

Only 280,000 native speakers of Tuvan exist in the world today, most of which originate from the Republic of Tuva in Siberia.  The language contains four main dialects:  Western, Central, Northeastern, and Southeastern.  What’s the difference?  We’ve got you covered:

  • Western: spoken near the upper course of the Khemchik River and influenced by the Altai language (another similar Turkic language, spoken in the Altai republic of Russia).
  • Central:  this dialect is the basis of Tuvan literature and includes two different sub-dialects:  Ovyur and Bii-Khem.
  • Northeastern:  also called the Todzhi dialect, known for its use of nasalization (a process by which air escapes through the nose while the mouth produces sound).  The Northeastern dialect also contains many specific words related to reindeer hunting and breeding that are not found in other dialects.
  • Southeastern:  this dialect contains the most direct influence from the Mongolian language.

The Tuvan alphabet contains 36 letters; 8 of which are vowels and the rest consonants.  Not too bad, right?  Don’t get too excited, though, as the grammar is very different from that of English.  For example, Tuvan words typically add suffixes to indicate the role they have in a particular sentence (that is; tense, mood, or aspect). Tuvan also uses “postpositions” instead of the prepositions we use in English.

Like to Sing? You’re in Luck!

Warm up your voices, readers, because Tuvan is perhaps best known for its characteristic method of “throat singing.”  In this technique, the speaker produces a low, throaty sound during which he/she sings a series of higher notes simultaneously.  This type of communication was popularized in Mongolia due to the country’s open, sprawling landscape that allowed sound to project and cover long distances.  The songs typically imitate the sounds of nature, such as the wind, water, and different animals.  A few examples can be found below, each of which sound fairly similar:

Salyr” : The sound of leaves or dry grass rustling

Solur” : The sound of water in a brook

Sulur” : The sound of a nearly dried up river

Fun fact:  historically, the Tuvan people believed that a woman who attempted the throat singing would inflict harm on her male relatives and suffer pain during childbirth. Don’t worry – singing is completely optional in Mango’s Tuvan course, we promise.

A Crash Course on Tuvan Pronunciation

One of the most distinctive elements of the Tuvan language is its unique pronunciation of vowels.  Depending on the specific word, each vowel can be held for either a very short duration or a much longer duration.  To make it a little more interesting, there is also a characteristic “low pitch” that is separate from both short and long vowels, also referred to as “creaky voice.”  Speakers will pronounce the first half of the vowel using an extremely low pitch, then slowly rise to a higher pitch on the second half.  We know, it sounds tough, but bear with us.  The “creaky voice” technique is actually pretty similar to many tonal languages, such as Mandarin or Vietnamese.  If you can learn these, Tuvan will be a breeze.

How can I Learn?

The above question is always music to any Mango’s ears, and especially when it refers to an endangered language like Tuvan.  After all, we rely on language-savvy people like you to help us out with our efforts in preserving these fascinating cultures and traditions.  If you’ve enjoyed this post and want to continue learning more about the Tuvan language, it’s now easier than ever before.  Simply navigate to our endangered languages page, set up an account, and begin learning!  Be sure to keep us updated on your progress through Facebook and Twitter.

Our endangered language journey isn’t over yet! Check back next week as we continue our travels to the Asian country of Bhutan. Can you guess what language we picked?

Meet The Author:
Author - Britta Wilhelmsen
Britta Wilhelmsen
Linguist at Mango Languages
Britta is a University of Michigan graduate, currently living and working in the vibrant city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. When she’s not busy teaching English to business professionals or writing for Mango, you can find her enjoying the sun in one of Buenos Aires’ beautiful parks and/or studying Spanish in her free time. Like many mangos, she believes that language consistently makes life more colorful.

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

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