Apologizing in Russian: Acquisition of Pragmatic Competence in Russian by American Learners of Russian

Maria Shardakova, Bryn Mawr College

This paper reports on my investigation of apologies offered in Russian by American learners of Russian. I compare learners who have been exposed to the target culture to those with no in-country experience, whose knowledge of Russian socio-linguistic norms comes from their classroom experience or form comments provided in textbooks. Since apology is one of the universals of remedial interpersonal communication (Goffman: 1971), particularly with respect to the politeness principle (Brown&Levinson: 1987), the awareness of culture-specific norms in the realization of the apology speech act is crucial for American learners of Russian if they are to avoid misunderstandings when interacting with Russian NSs [native speakers]. The goal of this paper is threefold: 1) to compare the semantic strategies, syntax, lexical repertoire, and discursive patterns employed in apologetic behavior by native speakers of Russian (NS) to those employed by American learners of Russian (NNS [non-native speakers]); 2) to identify areas that are most problematic for the NNSs; 3) and, consequently, to formulate suggestions for teaching Russian pragmatics to American learners.

The study is carried out within the framework devised for the analysis of the interlanguage pragmatic development (Rose, 2000) and also utilizes the CCSARP classification of semantic strategies for the apology speech act (The Cross Cultural Speech Act Research Project, Blum-Kulka & al., 1989). Based on the data elicited through the written discourse completion task and oral role-play scenarios administered to both Russian NS and American NNS participants, I argue that American NNSs approximate Russian NSs in their strategic repertoire; however, American NNSs differ considerably from their Russian counterparts in coordinating these strategies with various socio-cultural contexts (social status and distance between the participants, perceived severity of the offence) and appropriate linguistic forms. In addition, the two samples display distinct discursive styles: Russians favor what I call an oppositional style (i.e., Russian NSs create connections between sentences by using such conjunctions as ‘but’ or ‘however’) and Americans prefer an accumulative rhetoric (i.e., the connections between sentences are established with the help of conjunctions such as ‘and’ or ‘then’). With increased linguistic proficiency, American speakers of Russian exhibit closer approximation of the Russian norm, however they still experience difficulties in adjusting their strategic and linguistic repertoires to the situational variables; and their discursive patterns remain almost unchanged.

In conclusion, I argue that language instruction - be it an in-class discussion or a textbook comment - must facilitate the acquisition of pragmatic competence by American learners of Russian by focusing primarily on the stylistic variations caused by contextual variables and by fostering an oppositional discursive style.

Blum-Kulka, Shoshana; Juliane House, Gabriele Kasper (Eds.) Cross-Cultural Pragmatics: Requests and Apologies. Ablex Pub. Corporation, Norwood, NJ, 1989

Rose, K. R. (2000). “An exploratory cross-sectional study of interlanguage pragmatic development.” Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 22 (1), 27-67.