The Speech Act of Requests: A Pedagogical Perspective

Meghan K. Murphy-Lee, University of Kansas

This paper explores requests as a speech act in Russian and English from a pedagogical standpoint. While mastering the pragmatics and social linguistics of requests is challenging due to the differences in this speech act across cultures, the request is nevertheless an important speech act for students to master when learning a foreign language. The student needs to be able to follow the social conventions of the target culture. There s/he will face many variants of this speech act and it is imperative that the student knows how to produce and respond to these. Also, in order for him/her to reach the intermediate ACTFL proficiency level (characterized by an ability to initiate and sustain communicative tasks as well as respond to them), s/he need to be able to respond to and create speech acts such as requests.

Requests, classified by Searle as “directives” or “invitationals,” come in many forms. Examples include: “Can I borrow your book?” “Would you mind giving me a ride home?” “That trash has sure been sitting there for a while.” Mills’s (1991, 1992, 1993) work uses Speech Act Theory to examine the differences between English and Russian requests. She concludes that requests in Russian tend to be more direct because of their tendency to be placed in the imperative mood. English requests, she says, are usually found in the conditional. Since Mills’s work on Speech Act Theory focuses on requests, I will use her data as the point of departure for my analysis of the methods of presenting requests in four widely used elementary textbooks (Trojka, Načalo, Golosa and Russian Stage One).

In my analysis, I will survey the types of requests that appear in the direct linguistic input in the textbooks, noting the relative stage when various kinds of requests appear. Since the explanation of the requests may not occur at the same time the speech act appears in the language input of the text, I will demonstrate where and how each textbook explains the requests. Owing to the differences between English and Russian requests noted by Mills, I will also report whether cultural information pertaining to requests is included. Finally, I will determine how the each of the textbooks depicts the cultural and structural differences between American English and Russian invitations. With proper input and exposure to speech acts such as requests, a beginning student of Russian can more easily advance his/her level of proficiency.


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Ervin, Gerard, Sophia Lubensky, and Donald K. Jarvis (1996). Načalo: When in Russia. New York: McGraw Hill.

Mills, Margaret (1993). “On Russian and English Pragmalinguistic Strategies.” Journal of Slavic Linguistics 11,1: 92–115.

—. (1992). “Conventionalized Politeness in Russian Requests: A Pragmatic View of Indirectness.” Russian Linguistics 16,1: 65–78.

—. (1991). “The Performance Force of the Interrogative in Colloquial Russian: From Direct to Indirect Speech Acts.” Slavic and East European Journal 35,4: 553–569.

Nummikoski, Marita (1995). Trojka: A Communicative Approach to Russian Language Life and Culture. New York: J. Wiley.

Robin, Richard, Joanna Robin, and Kathryn Henry (1998). Golosa: A Basic Course in Russian. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Searle, John. (1979). “A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts.” Keith Gunderson, ed. Studies in the Philosophy of Science 7: 344–367.