Pronunciation Errors in Non-Native Russian: A Hierarchy of Acceptibility

Mary Elizabeth McLendon, Independent Scholar

Results of previous research (presented at AATSEEL in 1998), which show that accuracy in pronunciation makes more of a difference than grammatical accuracy in how Russians evaluate American speakers of Russian, suggested that further research into pronunciation errors would be informative. The purpose of this paper is to present the results of such research: determining which specific types of errors in foreigners’ pronunciation Russians consider more and less acceptable, and applying the results to the teaching of Russian.

Based on the discussion of Americans’ errors in speaking Russian in three previous works (Vovk, 1982; Holden and Hogan, 1993; Rifkin, 1995), five categories of pronunciation errors were chosen for examination in this study: 1) failure to palatalize consonants where they should be palatalized, 2) failure to reduce unstressed vowels, 3) failure to produce consonant changes which occur (this category includes voicing assimilation, word-final devoicing, and cluster simplification), 4) giving an incorrect or inappropriate intonational contour to a sentence, and 5) placing word stress on the wrong syllable.

The central question of this study is which particular types of pronunciation errors made by American speakers of Russian are considered more or less serious. The methodology was straightforward: fifteen non-teacher native speakers of Russian listened to a recording of an American speaking Russian. The discourse was divided into six parts, one for each of the errors listed above and one control containing no errors. The subjects evaluated the speech in each part for comprehensibility and acceptability using a scale from 5 to 1 (cf. Chastain, 1980).

Based on the mean score for each error category, a preliminary error hierarchy was found and then the results were analyzed for statistical significance. The respondents’ comments were also noted, since they can often be more telling than a numerical value. The results complement previous research in Russian, since this study looks at several pronunciation errors, rather than only one feature of pronunciation (cf. Holden and Hogan, 1993), and looks at these errors in relation to each other, rather than in relation to grammatical errors (cf. Rifkin, 1995).

Research in second/foreign language learning shows that what is most important at the beginning is that students learn to express themselves in a comprehensible, acceptable, and socially appropriate way, whatever that may mean in a given target language. The results of this and my previous research show that pronunciation, while it is not the only component of comprehensibility, is the surest key to acceptance and positive evaluation by native speakers of Russian. This observation leaves the question of how to present pronunciation in the classroom, discussion of which will conclude the paper.