Can Explicit Instruction Improve Socio-Pragmatic Competence?

Jane Hacking, University of Utah

A crucial aspect of L2 competence is the successful acquisition of social norms in the target language: the learner must acquire socio-pragmatic competence, that is, the ability to select linguistic forms appropriate for a given situation. This paper reports on a research project designed to assess the effect of explicit, guided classroom instruction on the performance of refusal speech act behavior by advanced learners of Russian. It contributes to the current debate about how best to help learners acquire this aspect of L2 competence (see for example: Cohen 1996; Barron 2003). The working hypothesis is that participants exposed to explicit classroom instruction about the way the parameters of politeness and social status are coded linguistically in Russian will perform better on the post-test than participants who receive only implicit input.

Participants (N=40) in the study (who are all university level students at the third year level) will be assigned randomly to one of two groups. Each group will complete the same pre- and post- tests and have two instructional sessions based around role-play scenarios including, but not limited to, refusals. One of the two groups will receive specific instruction about how politeness and status are linguistically coded and how this might differ from their native language. This group will thus engage in practice AND metalinguistic discussion of what they are practicing. The other group will work with the same material; however there will not be overt discussion of socio-pragmatic issues. Instead, work with this group will focus on vocabulary building. Thus, both groups will be receiving specialized instruction using refusals as part of the curricular material, but only one group will have explicit instruction about socio-pragmatic issues.

The pre and post-tests will be in a Discourse Completion Task format. The participant will receive a paper with several scenarios, which s/he must read and then respond to. The response is prompted by the phrase: And you say… Scenarios are constructed to manipulate the variables of status and familiarity. Each test will consist of 12 scenarios. Of these, half will involve the targeted speech act REFUSAL. The remaining six will be divided among other speech acts (for example, APOLOGY, REQUEST). Performance on the pre and post-tests will be compared for each group using native speaker assessments. Raters will be asked to respond to questions using a Likert scale. Questions are designed to determine what general impression the participants make on native speakers, and to isolate what aspect of the performance contributes to the overall assessment. These assessments will help to determine the effectiveness of explicit targeted instruction on socio-pragmatic competence.