Teaching Pragmatics to American Learners of Russian

Maria Shardakova, Bryn Mawr College

Why do learners of a second or foreign language – even with high linguistic proficiency - often fail to communicate successfully with their native interlocutors? And what can be done in order to help learners make their conversational contributions relevant, polite, and overall effective (House 1996). I have addressed this question in my cross-sectional developmental study of apology offerings by American learners of Russian.

 Collected data, comprised of 1032 transcripts of apologies offered by both Russian native speakers and American learners of Russian, showed significant differences between the two populations in their strategy choice, discourse structure, pragmatic routines, and internal modifications. In addition, accompanying assessment study demonstrated learners’ different perceptions of socio-cultural conventions underlying apologetic behavior, particularly their perceptions of severity of offence and social distance between interlocutors. For instance, learners assessed as most severe offences related to property damage, while Russian native speakers uniformly regarded tardiness as a worst offence.

 To this day, pragmatic rules for language use occupy a very limited space in language teaching curricula; neither does pragmatics receive substantial attention in language teacher education programs. Nevertheless, without solid knowledge of how to do things with words learners run the risk to appear abrupt or brusque in social interactions (Yates). Left to figure out on their own Russian sociocultural conventions and their effects on communication, the majority of learners seem to experience difficulties and are oftentimes unable to acquire the pragmatics of the target language (Kasper). This apparent difficulty calls for instructional intervention in the form of specific input and interpretation of language use; and language classrooms are especially well suited to provide both.

 In my research, I have identified areas of particular difficulty for American learners and have formulated pedagogical suggestions on how to help learners bring their interlanguage closer to the target norm. Among these areas, there are, for instance, indirect expressions of responsibility (так получилось), inclusion of the hearer in repair offerings (давайте я помогу), syntactical constructions other than 1st-person pronoun + VP/Modal (помощь нужна?), conventionalized explanations (по независящим от меня обстоятельствам), exclamations coordinated with learners’ identities (боже мой, uttered by a woman; черт, uttered by a man).

 The study is carried out within the interlanguage pragmatics framework (Rose) and utilizes the CCSARP classification of semantic strategies for the apology speech act (The Cross Cultural Speech Act Research Project, Blum-Kulka & al.).


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

House, J. 1996. Developing pragmatic fluency in English as a foreign language: Routines and metapragmatic awareness. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 18, 225-252.

Kasper, G. 2001. Classroom research on interlanguage pragmatics. In K. Rose & G.    Kasper (Eds.). Pragmatics in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge     University Press.

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

Yates, L. 2004. The ‘secret rules of language’: Tackling pragmatics in the classroom.     Prospect: Journal of Australian TESOL, 19,1