Volume 5 (2014) Issue 1 - Article Krulatz
JLLT 5 (2014) 1.pdf

Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching

Volume 5 (2014) Issue 1 (PDF)

Electronic Requests in Native and Non-Native Russian:

Insights into Foreign Language Learners’ Sociolinguistic Competence

Anna Krulatz (Trondheim, Norway)


This study compares electronic requests written by native and non-native speakers of Russian. 184 responses were elicited via a discourse completion task with four scenarios. Using a framework adapted from the cross-cultural speech acts realization project (CCSRAP) (Blum-Kulka et al. 1989), the analysis focused on the strategies used to construct the head act of request (i.e. direct, conventionally indirect, and non-conventionally indirect) and internal and external modifications (i.e. alerters, upgraders, downgraders and supportive moves), and it revealed that while the use of some of the non-native speaker strategies approximates that of the native speakers, the requests produced by the two groups differ on several dimensions. The findings of the study confirm the hypothesis that even advanced foreign language learners often do not fully develop certain aspects of sociolinguistic competence.

Key words: speech acts, electronic requests, sociolinguistic competence, foreign language acquisition


Это исследование сравнивает электронные запросы, написанные родными и неродными носителями русского языка. Было собрано 184 ответа на задачу завершения дискурса по четырем сценариям. Применяя методику, адаптированную из проекта осуществления кросс-культурных речевых актов (CCSRAP) (Блюм-Кулка соавт., 1989), мы сосредоточили анализ на стратегиях, используемых для построения главного акта запроса (то есть прямых, условнокосвенных и неусловнокосвенных), а также на внутренних и внешних мотиваторах (таких, как сигнализаторы, обогатители, принижающие и вспомогательные ходы). Анализ показал, что хотя некоторые из неносителей применяют стратегии на приближенном к носителям языка уровне, запросы, произведенные двумя группами, отличаются по нескольким параметрам. Результаты исследования подтверждают гипотезу, что даже изучившие иностранный язык на продвинутом уровне часто не полностью развивают определенные аспекты социолингвистической компетенции.

Ключевые слова: речевые акты, электронные запросы, социолингвистическая компетенция, приобретение иностранного языка

1 Introduction

Sociolinguistic competence can be defined as the ability to make situationally appropriate linguistic choices based on the status differences between interlocutors, the context of the linguistic exchange, and the level of imposition created by the message (Bachman & Palmer 2010, Canale & Swain 1980). This aspect of linguistic competence poses serious challenges for foreign and second language learners because “what counts as socio-pragmatically appropriate is guided by social, cultural and personal preferences and the dynamics of the ongoing interaction” (Kasper & Rose 2002: 262). Establishing (and teaching) native-like sociopragmatic norms is not as straightforward as stating grammatical rules. Even though the importance of raising language learners’ socio-pragmatic awareness and increasing their levels of sociolinguistic competence have been stressed in recent literature related to language teaching (e.g. Bardovi-Harlig & Mahan-Taylor 2002, Ishihara 2010, Félix-Brasdefer & Cohen 2012), even advanced language learners rather frequently fail to approximate native sociopragmatic norms. When a language learner uses inappropriate linguistic means to perform a speech act such as a request, pragmalinguistic failure occurs (Thomas 1983: 99). Native speakers tend to judge pragmalinguistic failure much more harshly than grammatical mistakes (Biesenbach-Lucas 2007; Hartford / Bardovi-Harlig 1996; Hendricks, 2010).

As face-threatening speech acts, i.e. speech acts that threaten interlocutors’ public self-image (Brown / Levinson 1987), requests have been extensively studied from the cross-cultural and cross-linguistic perspective. It is by now well-established that while a request consists of an obligatory element, the head act, and optional modifications (internal and external), the linguistic means used to construct requests vary across languages and cultures. Several studies have revealed that native and non-native speakers differ in how they perform requests. With regards to Russian, Mills (1993) found that non-native speakers tend to transfer strategies from their first language, which are often inappropriate in the target language (e.g. the use of ‘Can you?’ or ‘Could you?’ to perform requests in Russian). Owen (2002) found that non-native speakers only started to approximate native speaker norms after an extensive study-abroad experience. Similar findings have been reported in regards to other target languages and first language backgrounds(Blum-Kulka & Olshtain 1986, Kasanga 2006, Hacking 2008, and Lin 2009 all report differences between native and non-native production of requests). 1

The present study attempts to further research on interlanguage requests in Russian. It focuses on two aspects of sociolinguistic competence as defined by Celce-Murcia, Dornyei and Thurrell (1995), namely actional competence, or the ability to express communicative intent, use conventionalized forms and formulaic expressions, and formulate direct and indirect speech acts; and discourse competence, or the ability to select, sequence and arrange words, structures and sentences, and to use openings, closings, cohesion, coherence, genres and deixis. Specifically, the study examines the ability of non-native speakers of Russian to produce email requests as compared to native-speakers, and it aims to answer the following research questions:

    • How do native and non-native speakers of Russian formulate the head acts of requests in emails?
    • What internal and external modifications of requests are used by these two groups of participants?

2 Study Design

2.1 Participants

There were two groups of participants in this study: native speakers and non-native speakers of Russian. The first group of participants (n=20) consisted of 7 males and 13 females, ages 18-35, all of whom resided in Russia at the time of the study. The non-native speaker group (n=21) consisted of 13 males and 8 females, aged 18-40, all of whom resided in the United States at the time of the study, spoke English as their first language, and were either students enrolled in a third or fourth year of Russian study at the University of Utah, or alumni who had completed at least 3 years of Russian before graduation.

Prior to participating in the study, all non-native participants were asked to complete a questionnaire to obtain information about their language background and a self-report about their level of Russian. Eighteen of the non-native participants were former missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS) and had served their 1.5-2 year-long mission in a Russian speaking country. This means that they had completed a two-month long Russian language training at a Missionary Training Center and spoke Russian between 5 to 9 hours per day during their mission. The remaining three informants participated in a study-abroad program (between two to eight weeks) in a Russian speaking country. 10% of the American participants indicated that they felt comfortable using Russian in all environments, and the remaining 90% reported that they felt comfortable using Russian in most situations.

The non-native speakers of Russian were also asked to take a pre-test to ensure that their level of grammatical competence was advanced enough to complete the tasks in the study. The test was developed specifically for the purpose of the study and elicited grammatical structures needed for the production of Russian requests, namely imperatives, personal pronouns in the dative case, conditional sentences, polite forms of address and the conjugation of the verb pisat ('to write').

2.2 Data Collection and Analysis

The data in this study were collected on the basis of a discourse completion task (DCT). Participants were given four scenarios that elicited requests, and asked to compose four email messages addressed to imaginary Russian professors in Russia. The example below illustrates the instructions the participants received. All instructions for participants were provided in Russian.

Example: DCT task for participants

You completed your undergraduate degree in history at Moscow State University. Write an email to Professor Andrey Sergeevich Dvornichenkoin, with whom you took a Russian history class, and ask him to write you a letter of recommendation for a scholarship.

The analysis of the responses focused on head acts as well as external and internal modifications, using a coding system adapted from the cross-cultural speech acts realization project (CCSARP) (Blum-Kulka et al. 1989: 273-294). The following head act categories were distinguished:

    • Direct requests, i.e. requests whose content can be determined from the linguistic content alone, е.g. imperatives such as podskažite, požaluysta (‘indicate, please’),
    • Conventionally indirect requests, i.e. ambiguous formulaic utterances that can be interpreted as a request, e.g. ne mogli by vy (‘couldn’t you’),
    • Non-conventionally indirect requests, i.e. ambiguous sentences with multiple possible speaker-dependent interpretations, one of which can be a request, e.g. mne tak xolodno (‘I’m so cold’) used as a requests to close the window.

In addition to the head acts, external and internal request modifications were analyzed. The following modification categories were used:

    • Alerters, i.e. titles, names, terms of endearment and personal pronouns, e.g. polite vy(‘you’) vs. familiar ty (‘you’),
    • Downgraders, i.e. lexical, phrasal and syntactic modifications used to reduce the force of the request, e.g. požalujsta (‘please’),
    • Upgraders, i.e. modifications used to intensify the force of the request, e.g. kak možno skoree (‘as soon as possible’)
    • Supportive moves, e.g. a justification of the request or a promise of a reward, e.g. u mena voznikli nekotorye voprosy po kursu (‘I have some questions about the course’), or ja budu vam blagodarnyj (‘I will be very grateful’).

3 Results and Discussion

A total of 164 emails - 80 of which written by native and 84 written by non-native speakers of Russian - were produced by participants (i.e. four emails per participant) and analyzed. The analysis focused on the identification of similarities and differences in the use of request strategies between the two groups of participants. The analysis included the head act as well as internal and external modifications.

3.1 Head Acts

The head act is the part of request that realizes the act independently of other elements. Three kinds of head-act realizations were found in the data collected for this study:

    • direct,
    • conventionally indirect, and
    • non-conventionally indirect realizations.

In the framework of the direct strategies, the following categories were distinguished:

    • mood derivable (imperatives), e.g. podskažite, požaluysta (‘indicate, please’);
    • explicit performatives, or utterances with explicitly marked illocutionary force, e.g. obraščajus k vam s prosboj (‘I am turning to you with a request’);
    • hedged performatives, where the verb expressing the request is modified by a modal or a verb expressing intention, e.g. ja xotel by obratitsja k vam s prosboj (‘I would like to turn to you with a request’), and
    • want statements, or the utterances expressing the speaker’s desire that the request be granted, e.g. ja xotela by uznat (‘I would like to know’). Figure 1 illustrates the distribution of different types of direct strategies among the two groups of informants:

Figure 1: Direct strategies used by NS (native speakers) and NNS (non-native speakers)

As can be seen, the non-native speakers showed a strong preference for want statements which comprised 43% of all strategies used by this group. In contrast, the native speakers of Russian preferred explicit performatives, at 22% of all strategies. Contrary to previous findings (e.g. Ogiermann 2003, where imperatives made up 35% of the Russian requests), in the present study, imperatives were not very common among the native speakers of Russian (7%).

The conventionally indirect strategies, i.e. conventionalized utterances that contained references to ability, willingness, or possibility, included four types of preparatory utterances:

    • query preparatory (interrogatives);
    • negative preparatory utterances, e.g. ne mogli by vy (‘couldn’t you’);
    • positive preparatory utterances (e.g. mogli by vy (‘could you’), and
    • conditional preparatory statements (e.g. esli vy smožete (‘if you could’).

Figure 2 summarizes these findings:

Figure 2: Conventionally indirect strategies used by NS and NNS

Overall, native speakers seemed to prefer the negative preparatory strategy (40% of all requests), in comparison with only 11% of all non-native requests. An opposite trend could be observed in the case of positive preparatory strategies. While this strategy was used by only 2% of the native speakers, and only in impersonal constructions, it was employed by the non-native speakers in 12% of their requests, and only in 5 out of these 12 requests, an impersonal construction was used.

Non-conventionally indirect requests were almost absent from the data, at 1% for each group. This is consistent with earlier findings (e.g. Mills 1993).

3.2 Request Modifications

The analysis of external modifications focused on downgraders, upgraders, alerters and supportive moves. Downgraders are defined as linguistic means that decrease the impact of a request. The most common downgraders found of the data of the present study were conditional clauses (e.g. ja by vam byl očen’ blagodarny jesli by vy mogli eto dla mena sdelat (‘I would be very grateful if you could do this for me’)) and the lexical downgrader požalujsta ('please'), which typically occurred with imperative constructions. Downgraders were found in 36% of the messages written by the native and in 43% of the messages written by the non-native participants.

In contrast to downgraders, upgraders actually increase the impact of a request. They include intensifiers such as očen trudno (‘very difficult’) and time intensifiers such as kak možno skoree (‘as soon as possible’), ešče raz (‘one more time’) and ne pozdnee vtornika (‘no later than Tuesday’). Upgraders were not common in the messages written by the native speakers (6%), but they were more frequent in those written by the non-native speakers taking part in this study (19%).

In the present study, alerters include salutations and closings. As far as salutations are concerned, non-native speakers made more diverse choices than native-speakers, and they used certain salutations not found in the native-speaker data. For example, they showed a strong preference for addressing the recipient as ‘professor’ (65%), a category that is nearly non-existent in the native speaker data (1%). In the same fashion, the use of ‘dear’ and ‘dear professor’ in the non-native data account for 17.5% of all messages whereas native speakers did not use this form of address at all. On the other hand, the majority of native speakers (40%) used uvažaemyj / uvažaemaja (‘respected’), followed by zdravstvujte (‘hello’) (25%), both of which were rarely used by non-native speakers. Overall, respected, which was present in 52% of the native speaker emails, was only employed by 13% of American respondents.

There were a lot of diversity and several discrepancies between the two groups when it came to closings. Seventeen different expressions were distinguished among the closings used by non-native speakers, and 13 different closings were used by native speakers. The most common closing used by the native-speaker group was s uvaženiem (‘with respect’) (53 instances) whereas non-native speakers used this expression in only 15 instances. On the other hand, non-native speakers employed some closings which were either absent or rarely employed in native speaker data, for example spasibo za vašu pomošč (‘thank you for your help’), spasibo za vaše vremja (‘thank you for your time’), and spasibo za vsjo (‘thank you for everything’).

The final category of modifications distinguished in the present study represents supportive moves. These include preparators (e.g. asking for permission to make a request), imposition minimizers (e.g. no tolko esli u vas jest vremja (‘but only if you have time’)), disarmers (i.e. modifications that remove any potential objections), and grounders (i.e. reasons and explanations). Interestingly, both groups of participants used similar supportive moves to modify their requests. Overall, 92% of the native speakers and 93% of the non-native speakers used supportive moves to modify their requests.

The preparators used in the data can be divided into those that provide general information about the context of the request (e.g. ja vaš byvšyj student, ‘I am your former student;’ nadejus što vy mena pomnite, ‘I hope you remember me;’ or ja tolko što zaveršil učebnuju programmu u vas, ‘I have just graduated from your program’), and those that provide more detailed information about the writer of the message (e.g. Mena zovut X i ja student v vašem kurse russkoj literatury ‘My name is X and I am a student in your Russian literature class;’ or ja student gruppy numer pjat ‘I am a student from group No. 5’). Table 1 summarizes the percentage of participants who used these two types of preparators:

Table. 1: The use of preparators by native and non-native speakers

Imposition minimizers are expressions that are supposed to reduce the level of imposition on the recipient of the message (Blum-Kulka et al. 1989: 287). In the present study, all imposition minimizers made a reference to using a professor’s time, e.g., ja znaju što vy zanjatyj (‘I understand that you are very busy’), or kogda vam udobno (‘when it is convenient for you’). In the NS data, 31% of the requests were mitigated with an imposition minimizer, in comparison with 24% of the NNS requests.

Disarmers, defined as expressions used to remove any potential objections to the request (Blum-Kulka et al. 1989: 287), were employed in 34% of the messages sent by the native speaker and in 25% of those sent by the non-native speakers. The participants in the present study mostly used statements about their good academic standing (e.g. good grades, high test scores), their interest in and thankfulness for the course, compliments on the addressees’ accomplishments, or references to difficulties with the course.

Grounders, or reasons, explanations and justifications in support of a request were commonly employed by both groups of participants. Overall, 80% of the native messages and 74% of the non-native messages contained grounders. Some examples of these are references to the scholarship of the addressee, the desire to enter university or continue education, and a need to discuss a question with the addressee.

4 Conclusions

4.1 Summary

The present study investigated certain aspects of the participants’ sociolinguistic competence by examining the extent to which electronic requests written by native and non-native speakers of Russian were similar or different. A detailed analysis of the head acts and head act modifications revealed interesting discrepancies as well as similarities. Both groups of participants used a varied repertoire of strategies, and used similar numbers of direct, conventionally indirect and non-conventionally indirect strategies. The two groups also showed similarities in their use of mood derivable statements, hedged performatives, query preparatory strategies and strong hints. However, the native-speaker participants showed a strong preference for explicit performatives and preparatory negative statements. The non-native-speaker group, on the other hand, over-relied on want statements and preparatory positive statements, which were rarely used by the native-speakers.

The native and non-native speakers also differed in the way they used internal and external modifications of the requests, for instance in the choice of openings and closings, in the frequency of use of upgraders and in the amount of detailed information about the context of the request they provided. Nonetheless, the analysis revealed several similarities in the use of supportive moves (grounders, disarmers and imposition minimizers).

Discrepancies between the native and non-native use of request strategies suggest that the non-native participants’ sociolinguistic competence did not completely match native norms. Even though the non-natives used a similar proportion of direct and conventionally indirect strategies and mitigated their requests, using supportive moves similar to those employed by the native speakers, several instances of pragmalinguistic failure could be identified in the data. Mills (1993) distinguished the following categories of pragmalinguistic failure in her study of Russian requests:

    • More verbosity – preparators, pre-requests, grounders; a greater inclination to provide a rationale for making a request;
    • avoidance of the direct imperative;
    • an overreliance on English forms questioning the addressee’s ability to perform the request;
    • an overreliance on typical Russian syntactic structures related to extremely polite speech behavior (combinations comprised of negative, conditional, andinterrogative particles).

Based on a careful examination of those areas in which the non-native speakers differed from the native speakers, the following additional categories of pragmalinguistic failure are proposed:

    • An overreliance on want statements and positive preparatory strategies,
    • underrepresentation of explicit performatives and negative preparatory strategies,
    • an overuse of upgraders,
    • a non-native like use of closings (i.e., the preference of ‘many thanks’ over ‘with respect’),
    • insufficient acknowledgement of the imposition (this was in accordance with Hartford & Bardovi-Harlig 1996) and
    • insufficient information about the background of the sender.

4.2 Limitations of the Study

It has to be recognized that this study is not without any limitations. Most importantly, the four prompts used in the DCT were quite similar in terms of context (academic), addressee (a Russian professor) and content (a request). Consequently, the range of strategies used by the participants may have been quite limited and repetitious. Secondly, the non-native participants were not typical foreign language learners. Most of them were former LDS missionaries who had received extensive instruction in Russian and spent a long period of time interacting with native speakers in the target culture setting. Being missionaries and attempting to convert native speakers of Russian to their faith, they may have paid special attention to the choice of language strategies so that they could integrate more easily into the target language community. Therefore, their sociolinguistic competence may have developed to a higher degree than that of foreign language learners without comparable experience.

Notwithstanding the limitations of this study, the findings suggest that, while acquiring the sociolinguistic knowledge and skills may take a long time, certain approximations to a native-speaker choice of language strategies exist.

4.3 Pedagogical Implications

The results of this and other studies (e.g. Mills 2003 and Ogiermann 2003) suggest that there is a need for explicit instruction to enhance learners’ sociopragmatic competence. This is in concord with several recent publications in the area of interlanguage pragmatics which suggest specific classroom solutions (e.g. Bardovi-Harlig & Mahan-Taylor 2002, Ishihara 2010, Félix-Brasdefer & Cohen 2012). Instruction could focus on specific speech acts such as requests, apologies, compliments, or invitations, and it could include activities such as raising awareness about the differences between the realization of speech acts in the first language and the target language, the collection and analysis of native-speaker examples and personal journals or logs about their own use of speech acts by the language learners. We would also like to suggest that in order to make teaching of sociopragmatic skills happen in the classroom, well-designed, easy-to-use pedagogical materials have to be created. Such materials may easily be accessible for English and other commonly taught languages such as German and Spanish, but they are hardly available to teachers of other, less commonly taught languages. The body of research on cross-cultural differences in the realization of speech acts is extremely rich. The next step is to put these findings to a practical end.


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Anna Krulatz, PhD

Associate Professor

Sør-Тrøndelag University College

Department of English

Rotvoll allé



Email: anna.m.krulatz@hist.no

1 In this context, Blum-Kulka & Olshtain 1986, Kasanga 2006, Hacking 2008, and Lin 2009, for example, all report differences between the native and non-native production of requests.