The Language and Culture Interface in the Russian Classroom

Yelena Belyaeva-Standen, Saint Louis University

The presentation deals with the issues of cultural transfer, which often presents a problem in Russian intermediate classes. The paper is based on the theory of negative transfer in second language acquisition (Kramsch) and focuses on those aspects of the English grammar and Anglo-Saxon culture that most frequently affects Russian speech performance of American students. After giving an outline of the main theoretical assumptions, I will demonstrate the most typical errors that result from this negative linguistic and cultural transfer and ask the audience to identify, predict, and edit samples of student's writings that may have these errors. Finally, I will give practical recommendations on how to enhance the students' grammatical and cultural competence.

The notion of negative transfer builds on the understanding of language as a guide to social reality that reflects cultural values and assumptions, which lie behind linguistic differences between languages (see the theory of linguistic relativity by Sapire and Worf). Further research in cross-cultural pragmatics (Blum-Kulka, Hymes, R. Lakoff, Wierzbicka, Tannen) demonstrated that speakers use languages in culturally distinctive ways which are determined by ethno-specific ways of understanding the world. These differences are most clearly revealed in communication patterns, namely in the frequency of usage and preferences of choices of communicative strategies. For example, the speech act of complimenting is very different in Slavic and American cultures in such aspects as: what, when, whom and how to pay a compliment and also how to react to a compliment. Another example is comparative frequency of usage of imperative forms in Russian and in English. Due to the social stigma on the use of imperative forms in Anglo-Saxon culture, American students avoid using them in all kinds of directive speech acts, even when communicating with peers. This practice runs contrary to the ways that imperatives are used by Russians. Because of these discrepancies, American learners of Russian often develop their own version of Russian, their own interlanguage that easily gives away their "foreignness" even if they speak grammatically correct Russian. Moreover, negative transfer of the native cultural scripts into L2 performance often results in pragmatic failure that leads to misunderstanding and frustration in communication across cultures. Drawing from my research of cross-cultural differences between Russian and American communicative styles and experience in teaching Russian to American and English to Russians, I will demonstrate grammatical peculiarities of the American-Russian interlanguage and classify the instances of linguistic and cultural transfer in speech and writing of American learners of Russian and Russian learners of English.