Syntactic Errors in Written Russian of Heritage Learners

Anna Geisherik, State University of New York, Stony Brook

One of the main objectives of heritage learners of Russian is to acquire literacy skills. In order to provide instruction which targets the needs of this particular group of students, instructors need to be aware of the most common types of heritage student errors.

Although there is extensive literature on the types of errors produced by learners of Russian as a foreign language, common speech and literacy problems of heritage learners are in desperate need of further research.

Grammatical errors can be effectively addressed using not only direct instruction, but also with the help of existing internal linguistic resources inherent in native speakers and retained to a certain degree in heritage speakers. For example, Bermel and Kagan (2000) observe that unlike non-heritage students, heritage learners retain a high degree of internal grammar, therefore deduction is a good strategy for teaching heritage learners. Because such internal grammar cannot be relied on in learners of a foreign language, approaches to teaching literacy to heritage and non-heritage students should be appropriately different.

To date, there have been very few studies that systematize syntactic errors of heritage learners of Russian. Polinsky (1996) has conducted the most extensive study of grammatical errors of heritage students to date, and provides an extensive and comprehensive analysis of spoken language which can be used as a basis for the analysis of written samples.

In the presentation I will describe and analyze syntactic errors demonstrated in the written work of heritage learners of Russian based on writing samples of heritage students enrolled in intermediate and advanced Russian language classes from 2000 to 2003. The samples were collected from exams, compositions and essays over a period of 3 years. The focus of my research is on syntactic errors which were systematic in these writing samples. I analyze and discuss a set of syntactic errors that are unambiguously mistakes as well as some cases of contextually inappropriate constructions.

I will compare my findings with the research conducted by Polinsky on heritage learners’ oral speech, and by Kagan and others on heritage learners’ writing. I found consistency and systematized the types of syntactic errors demonstrated by heritage learners which allows to address these errors in designing the curriculum for a heritage speaker classroom.


Bermel N. & Kagan, O. 2000. “The Maintenance of Written Russian in Heritage Speakers.” In Kagan & Rifkin (Eds.) The Learning and Teaching of Slavic Languages and Cultures. Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 405-436

Kouzmin L. 1982. “Grammatical Interference in Australian Russian.” In: Sussex R.(Ed.) The Slavic Languages in Emigre Communities. Carbondale, USA: Linguistic Research, Inc, 73-87

Kovtunova I. 1980. “Porjadok Slov”. in Shvedova N. (ed.) 1980. Russkaja Grammatika vol. 2, Academy of Sciences, Moscow: Nauka.

Krylova O., Khavronina, S. 1976. Word order in Russian Sentences. Moscow: Russian Language Publishers.

Polinsky M. 1996. “Russian in the US: An endangered language,” Manuscript (To appear)

Polinsky M. (in press) “Incomplete Acquisition: American Russian,” Journal of Slavic Linguistics.