Pronunciation of Grammatical Inflections by American Learners of Russian: An Interlanguage-Specific Discourse Strategy

Kira Gor, University of Maryland

Earlier research (Ogorodnikova 1992, 1993, Gor 1998) has identified second language orthography as an important source of influence on interlanguage phonology. It demonstrated that absence of reduction of the unstressed orthographic "o" and "e" in the pronunciation of American learners of Russian both in reading and spontaneous speech is spelling induced, and depends on the phonetic position and phonetic context. The present study focuses on the reduction pattern of the orthographic "o" and "e" in grammatical inflections in the nominal, adjectival, and verbal paradigms and compares it with the pattern observed in other parts of the word. It addresses the role morphology plays in the phonological process in Russian interlanguage, and analyzes the influence of familiarity with a particular lexical item on pronunciation. The study uses input and output-based approaches to the interpretation of the results obtained. The data came from 10 American college students with Intermediate Low, Mid, and High oral proficiency on the ACTFL scale. Recordings of spontaneous speech (oral proficiency interviews) and reading were analyzed using the method of expert listening. The listening results were confirmed by the instrumental analysis of speech samples from one of the subjects. The study analyzed all the endings and stem types containing the unstressed "o" and "e" in post-stress position that occurred in spontaneous speech and reading.

The results indicate that the probability of spelling induced pronunciation depends on the concrete grammatical inflection, and also on the familiarity of the lexical item (assessed based on its frequency in the learner's output). For example, for the unstressed "o," the feminine instrumental ending -oj had the highest rate of o-like pronunciations, both in speaking and reading, whereas the first "o" in the genitive masculine ending -ogo was the least influenced by spelling. For the unstressed "e" both in speaking and reading, the prepositional and dative case ending -e had the highest rate of [e]-like vowels in inflections.

The final -o produced different results in adverbs, modal words, particles, and pronouns. This reflects the differences in perceived salience, and the degree of internalization of particular lexical items. Thus, čto and spasibo, high-frequency words, have the lowest incidence of spelling induced reductions. Similarly, the orthographic "e" in ochen', a high-frequency stem, was the least of all the stems to be influenced by the spelling.

The mechanism of vowel reduction in the Russian interlanguage of American learners is shaped by a set of factors, some of which are input-based, while others are output-based. The formal classroom creates a learning environment that relies heavily on written texts as the source of input. As a result, the phonological and graphic representations of lexical items and morphemes in the mental lexicon coalesce. Another feature of the formal classroom, paradigmatic approach to grammar, results in grammatical inflections that are learned independently as lists.

As a consequence, the stressed unreduced variant of the ending appears even in stem-stressed paradigms. Thus, Russian orthography and inflectional morphology influence the pattern of vowel reduction as features of the input to the formal learner.Vowel reduction in native speakers is part of backgrounding processes (Dressler, Moosmuller 1991) that reflect the universal tendency to economy of effort and lead to a decrease in the redundancy of the message. The results of the study indicate that Russian interlanguage speakers tend to use the opposite, foregrounding process: they emphasize the grammatical endings in order to preserve the important linguistic information. In this, they rely on the flexible interlanguage reduction rules, which violate the standard norms. If, indeed, the differential rates of spelling induced pronunciations in particular grammatical endings and stems is a manifestation of a listener-oriented discourse strategy, then morphology is involved in shaping the pattern of vowel reduction in interlanguage on the level of both input and output.Based on the conclusions of the study, the paper proposes an approach to teaching Russian pronunciation and grammar that will compensate for the deficiencies of the formal input, and develop in language learners discourse strategies based on the target rules.