MA in Applied Linguistics
Dissertation. Mary Immaculate College, the University of Limerick, Ireland.
The difficulties experienced by native speakers of Russian language in learning the English language.
This is research project is a qualitative study into the difficulties encountered by Russophones in learning English.
BACKGROUND AND THEORY
English is the world language with up to 10 per cent of the world’s population counting as native speakers – depending on one’s definition of a native speaker. About 20 per cent of Russian adults can speak English to at least an elementary level. However, this is much lower than in many non-Anglophone countries such as Sweden where the figure if about 90 per cent. For over 20 years every Russian child has done several years of English lessons at school. In some schools English has been the main foreign language for decades. Why is it that native speakers of the Russian find that English is especially challenging? This project aims to identify the obstacles that Russophones encounter. The difficulties that are particular to Russophones are topic of heated debate.
Previously German was the major foreign language in Russian schools. This is partially due to the grammatical structure of the German language with its six cases being notably similar to that of the Russian language. Now some Russian pupils are learning Chinese. Mandarin is extraordinarily difficult but has little grammar. Why do some Russians consider fluency in Mandarin Chinese to be obtainable but not in English? This hints at grammatical difficulties in the English language.
There are linguistic difficulties and sometimes cultural difficulties. What are these?
The linguistic difficulties can be grammatical or relate to pronunciation. In terms of pronunciation it is sometimes because a person cannot produce a certain sound which does not exist in his or her native tongue. On other occasions it is a question of laying the emphasis on the incorrect syllable. Sometimes people cannot distinguish where one syllable ends and the next begins. Certain words may be difficult to recall or to use appropriately. Syntax and word order also prove to be a headache for Russophones. Russian has six cases and these determine the relationships between the words in a Russian sentence. In English the word sequences performs the functions that cases perform in the Russian language. This leaves Russophones prone to making syntactical errors when attempting to converse in English since they may mistakenly believe that they are free to move words around in order and this will not affect the signification of the sentence.
This study will be very much embedded in the every day experience of an adult learner. They will have started learning English as children. As adult users of the language they will also be constantly improving.
Language choice theory and code switching are germane to this study.
AIMS AND OBJECTIVES
To identify the obstacles encountered by native speakers of Russian in learning English.
To link these obstacles to components of the Russian language where possible.
To identify methods of overcoming the obstacles identified by the study.
Specifically, how can these difficulties be solved? These can then by used by the student and others to help teach English as a foreign language to Russophones.
What are the difficulties that Russophones experience in learning English?
Are there any strategies that they have been taught or they devised themselves to enable them to overcome these obstacles?
Is there anything about the English language which Russophones found particularly easy especially in comparison to Russian or other languages?
What mistakes made by the participants in the interviews are examples of L1 interference? Any L1 mistakes will be traced back and explained.
RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODOLOGY
The research project will require the recruitment of participants. All of them will be adults. These are Russophones which does not necessarily mean that they are Russians. Some may be Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Kazakhs and people from other lands in the Russian-speaking world. Admittedly for some of these people from republics of the erstwhile USSR other than the Russian Federation, Russian might be a second rather than a first language. These people will be volunteers. Some of them may be previously known to the researcher and some not.
They will then be invited to a room on Blagoveshniy Street, Moscow, The Russian Federation at a time convenient to the participant. This location has been selected for its centrality. The participants will be interviewed individually. No one else will be present at these interviews. This is so the researcher can devote his full attention to each participant. Moreover, if someone else were present then the participant might feel inhibited and/or feel under pressure to go along with what someone else was saying.
The researcher shall greet the participants cordially and engaged in some small talk. It will emphasise the jovial and informal context of the interview. The purpose of this is to relax the participants and induce them to open up. The interviewer will speak his very imperfect Russian. This will make him equally vulnerable. The participants will then not be so embarrassed if they commit grammatical errors in English or mispronounce anything.
The interviews will be conducted in the English language. Any mistakes will not be corrected. However, the researcher might use these mistakes later to help him learn about the difficulty which Russophones experience in speaking English and speculate how this relates to L1 interference.
If a participant needs to we can switch into Russian for some of the conversation particularly if there is something that he or she is unable to express in the English language.
The interviewees (participants) will be asked to describe how good they think they are at various levels of English. Asking them about enjoyable teaching and learning strategies will take their mind off self-assessment. By learning I mean self-study – not how a teacher taught them.
#The researcher will not take notes during the interview since that might inhibit the participants. The participants will of course be informed that they are being recorded.
The interviews will be recorded. These can be played back later.
The interviews will last at least 30 minutes. They might last up to 60 depending on how fruitful the discussion is.
The specific research questions will be asked of the participants. They will also be asked if there is anything else that they wish to add.
The participants self-assessment may not be entirely accurate. People can overestimate or underestimate themselves. They might also over report or under report the difficulties that they have experienced. Nonetheless it is likely that at least some of what will be said shall prove to be accurate. Their beliefs about linguistic barriers will be worth analysing.
These interviews will provide food for thought. It might cause further exploration of some of these themes.
Some questions will be the same for each participants. Others will be tailored for the needs and experience of the individual participant. It will be intriguing to discover the commonality among the lived experience of the participants.
They shall not be paid for their time. This shall be made crystal clear to them before they sign the consent form.
I shall compare and contrast their experiences, the barriers to learning that they faced, their different means of overcoming the aforementioned barriers and I shall also examine areas of English which were easier than they had anticipated.
I would like the participants to speak as much as possible. I wish to avoid asking leading questions.
It can be conjectured that some of the difficulties faced by Russophones in acquiring mastery of the English language are not linguistic. Did they feel they were selling out by learning English? 26 years ago the Soviet Union was seen to be at parity with the United States. Did they face any disapproval from their families or peers? Were there psychological barriers holding them back? This touches on identity and language ideology. It could simply be that they found English dull or they faced mistake anxiety. Soviet education was very didactic and exacting.
A pool of ten people might be too small. Moreover, they will probably all be people who speak English fairly well or even fluently. This is an unrepresentative sample. They are mostly highly educated, in Moscow and aged 25-45. These are people most likely to be known to the researcher or to be friends of friends. The gender of participants is unlikely to have a major impact on the study. It is true that it is said that females typically underrate themselves more so than males of the same level of competence. I am not seeking to achieve a gender balance among the participants.
There will probably not be a large socio-economic discrepancy between the participants. Those who have a command of English tend to be from the upper middle class.
#People might not be entirely candid about the difficulties that they have experienced. They may find this embarrassing to talk about.
Because of the fairly small sample the participants cannot be taken to be representative of the Russian speaking world in its entirety. There are up to 200 000 000 native speakers of the Russian language. Generally speaking it is not sagacious to go from the particular to the general. It would not be sound to seek to draw firm conclusions from this small sample. Nonetheless these few participants could offer some genuine and precious insights into the language learning process.
The nature of this is qualitative and not quantitative. This project will not involve collecting a mass of statistics and analysing them in multiple different ways.
If this went really well there might be the potential to widen it into a larger project in future.
Yates has observed that one of the ptifalls of the methodology adumbrated hereinbefore it that one can put too much faith in individual stories. (Dornyei 2007). This issue is unusually salient in a qualitative study of this nature. Therefore the researcher shall be keenly alive to this peril.
One of the drawbacks of the informal approach is that the interview will be somewhat discursive. This may be a small price to pay for the fruitful data which may be uncovered through such a stratagem. However, the discursive style means that each person may be asked some different questions from the other participants.
There will not be much anxiety among the participants if they are previously known to the researcher. If this causes an ethical hurdle then different participants can be recruited.
Time is definitely a factor. A maximum of an hour might be too little for some very loquacious participants. There might be some very rich data to be harvested from further discussion. Moreover, education is an iterative process. It could be that the participants are ameliorating their English whilst the project is ongoing. Speaking to them weeks later might yield valuable data. However, time might not allow a second interview.
Once ethical clearance has been granted the data capturing process shall commence as soon as reasonably practicable. This may stretch over more than a month as participants need to be recruited. Then convenient time slots need to be found for participants.
Writing up shall start in March. A first draft will be ready in June. Final submission will be in August.
THE OBSTRUSIVE RESEARCHER EFFECT
I am chary about this. The participants might feel timid or reticent because of this. They are worried about letting themselves down by making a mistake.
Information sheets and consent sheets will be given to participants. Only those who have signed that they have read and understood what the study is about will be permitted to take part. The key points will be repeated to them before commencing the interview. They are free to leave at any time and they are not required to state a reason for doing so. If the wish to leave the room for a personal reason in the midst of the interview this shall be permitted with the intention of returning in a few minutes. This is not the same as wishing to pull out of the whole process altogether.
Their anonymity is guaranteed. They will not be identified by name or other details. They will be assigned a random number. Safeguarding the privacy of the participants is of the first importance. The data shall be retained in a lockable cabinet. The data will be kept for three years after the completion of the project and then destroyed.
The interviewer will strive to avoid causing them distress.
They will be warmly thanked for the assistance at the end. The opportunity to practise their English will be welcomed by them. Moreover, they will be gratified by the knowledge that they have lent a hand to their fellow Russophones in enabling teaching strategies to be devised.
If the potential participants have further questions the researcher will be happy to deal with these. Clarification and more explanation shall be willingly provided.
The Mary Immaculate College Ethics Departmental Committee must clear this.
ORIGINALITY AND RELEVANCE OF THE PROJECT
This project is original so far as I know. It is relevant because it is about English as it is learned and as it is spoken. It can be used in a practical manner to improve teaching methodology. This is not a hifalutin theoretical project. This will have a real world application and therefore be thoroughly useful. I would then be able to implement these strategies in my own teaching.
The project will not be guided by any particular research theory. I do not set out to prove or disprove any hypothesis. I do not wish to be prejudiced by such theories.
This will be a wonderful opportunity to gain a different perspective on the language acquisition process.
The aim would be to start collecting data as soon as ethical approval is granted. The ten or so interviews would be spaced over roughly a month. It could be that ten participants is insufficient and more participants are needed. In which case I would take longer. Moreover, it may transpire that follow up interviews are needed.
Interviews will be in March. The analysis of the data will be done in May. The first draft will be done in June. This will involve considerable editing.
Then I would move to the write up phase. This would take a few months. It will finish August. The second draft will be in August.
This is ethically sound. It aims to help Russophones by capturing data which will enable better teaching and learning strategies to be invented. It will also be of use to the participants because they will be granted the opportunity to practise their English with a native Anglophone.
Only adults will be recruited. This is partly owing to ethical considerations. The ethical situation for minors is much more problematic. It is hard for them to have the necessary detachment and perspective to reflect on their own difficulties. I would not want to risk lowering their self-esteem. Child protection issues would also be a complicating factor.
The adults will not be vulnerable or at risk.
The participants will be given a short but lucid information sheet as well as a consent form. This shall provide them with the contact details of my supervisor and the university. The participants shall be informed that they should contact my supervisor if they have any concerns or complaints.
The participants shall also be furnished with a debriefing sheet. If the participants wish to read the final dissertation this shall be made available to them. They shall be told that their co-operation is warmly appreciated.
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