Language Standards and the Written Russian of Heritage-Speaker Students

Neil Bermel, University of Sheffield

For some years now, the Russian teaching community has been grappling with the influx of students who emigrated from the former Soviet Union. This paper will examine the written language of such students, focusing on the extent to which they demonstrate an active, idiomatic control and understanding of written Contemporary Standard Russian.

The study is based on a corpus of approximately one hundred written language-proficiency exams administered to students in area high schools in 1995–1996. The exam relied on a combination of techniques to assess proficiency in written Russian: declension and conjugation of set words in sentence-length contexts, cloze tests in longer passages, English-Russian translations, questions on a reading passage, and a short composition on a personal theme. Students provided basic biographical and linguistic information (date of emigration, amount of schooling in the FSU, native language of student and parents).

Building on an earlier study (in press), which established “profiles” for degrees of literacy among heritage speakers, this paper will examine the data from a different angle, taking as its focus the frequency of certain error types, their co-occurrence, and their correlation with external factors indicated in the student questionnaire. Errors selected for examination represent a range of types: spelling in word stems and endings; deficiencies in grammatical paradigms; loss of entire grammatical categories (determinacy, aspect, case, etc.); non-Russian syntax and phraseology; and stylistic/cultural inappropriacies.

The first study pointed to a sliding scale in what we could (following Polinsky) call the “reduction” of written fluency. At the apex were students who were linguistically competent, but possibly deficient in their knowledge of what we could call “language culture” (more specifically the “culture of written language”), while at the bottom were students who lacked a firm grasp of the relationship between written and spoken signs in Russian. However, this sliding scale was only partially reflected in the grading, a point which can be rectified by looking more closely at error type and co-occurrence. It is expected that “acrolectal” (high-end) errors will show up with much higher frequencies in all texts than other errors, while the variety of errors among “basilectal” (low-end) writers will be highly variable. I will focus especially at basilectal errors that are generalized across a large number of papers, as they could conceivably be the most reliable indicators of written language loss or failed acquisition.

The study will also briefly touch on the specific differences between characteristics defining reduced written language and those characterizing reduced spoken language. Reference will be made to the few existing studies of written language loss, as well as to studies of spoken language loss, especially as concerns Russian and other Slavic languages.

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