Gender Choice: The Effects of Interlocutor Gender on Students' Spontaneous Russian Use

Valerie Pellegrino, Ohio State University

Gender research in second language acquisition during study abroad has generally focused on the different rates of development and levels of language proficiency achieved by men and women while studying in the target culture. This paper, however, explores the effects of interlocutor gender on American students' spontaneous use of Russian language during semester- and year-length academic programs in Russia. During the 1995-96 academic year, a group of 76 American college students living in Moscow and St. Petersburg were surveyed about their preference in American and Russian interlocutor gender. When asked about gender preferences for speaking Russian with Americans, the majority (79%) responded that they had no preference, 13% preferred speaking Russian with women, while only 8.5% preferred speaking with men. When asked the same question concerning Russian interlocutors, however, only a third of the respondents reported having no preference, while of those who did report a preference, 86.5% preferred speaking Russian with women as opposed to men. Male participantsexpressed slightly less preference than female participants in the gender of their interlocutors, although of the male participants, nearlyhalf (47.6%) still preferred speaking with Russian females. Less than tenpercent of both male and female students preferred speaking with Russian males.

The gender preference finding is significant since language learners studying abroad may reject opportunities to interact with native speakers due to gender preferences, thus, limiting their opportunities to develop second language proficiency. This body of this paper presents a qualitative investigation of possible reasons for interlocutor gender preference as offered by learners' narrative journals and interviews. The extensive narrative data base was collected throughout the students' time abroad and is supplemented by researcher observations, student demographics, and other forms of statistical and qualitative data. The narrative journals and interviews are analyzed using Strauss and Corbin's "grounded theory methodology" (Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques, 1990). The findings of this study are discussed in light of linguistic, sociolinguistic, and sociocultural theories of gender and communication.