Academic journal article Journal of Slavic Linguistics

Acquisition of L2 Written Narrative Competence: Tense-Switching by Russian L2 Speakers of German

Academic journal article Journal of Slavic Linguistics

Acquisition of L2 Written Narrative Competence: Tense-Switching by Russian L2 Speakers of German

Article excerpt

Abstract: The present study examines how foreground and background is marked in LI Russian and LI German, to test the hypothesis that LI speakers of Russian writing in German as L2 will use tense-switching to differentiate foreground and background. Results suggest that Russian-speaking writers used grammatical aspect while German-speaking writers employed inherent properties of the verbal predicate to mark foreground and background. The L2 data revealed a more mixed pattern: one third of the Russian-speaking L2 speakers of German used LI Russian pattern, switching between different tenses to mark foreground and background; another third of the Russian-speaking L2 users of German were comparable to LI German speakers; and a third group of the Russian-speaking L2 users of German wrote their texts in the present tense. These results indicate that switching between foreground and background, as a critical property of proficient narrative discourse, constitutes a long-lasting challenge in learning a second language.

1. Introduction

Being able to produce a coherent, well-organized text is essential for successful communication in general and for constructing narrative discourse in particular. Narrative proficiency enables speaker-writers to link different elements of a story, to highlight some and downgrade others, an ability which takes a long time to develop. Little is known about the acquisition of narrative discourse abilities in L2, although this is clearly part of becoming a proficient second-language speaker-writer.

Linguists generally agree that narrative discourse in different languages follows a common principle of information organization: the so-called grounding principle of alternation between foreground and background (e.g., Fleischman 1985, Hopper 1979, 1982, van Kuppevelt 1995, Labov and Waletzky 1967, Reinhart 1984, von Stutterheim and Klein 2002). Languages use various linguistic devices to mark foreground and background. Some make use of word order (Hopper 1979 for Old English) or voice (Hopper 1979 for Malay and Tagalog), while others employ tense-aspect morphology, as shown by Hopper (1979) for French and Russian and by Fleischman (1985) for Old French. Several studies have demonstrated that tense-aspect switching is a key mechanism for the differentiation between foreground and background in oral texts (Flashner 1989, Fludernik 1991, Hopper 1979, 1982, Schiffrin 1981). On the other hand, relatively little research is available on foreground-background alternations in written texts, exceptions being Chvany's (1984) analysis of stories by Tolstoy and Chekhov and Fleischman's (1985) study of medieval French epic texts.

The goal of the present study is to fill lacunae in the literature dealing with tense-aspect switching as a means for expressing foreground-background distinctions by examining non-literary texts written by non-native speaker-writers compared with their native-speaking peers. To this end, we analyze tense-aspect switching in a large corpus of written texts elicited from a group of advanced-level learners of German as L2, compared with corresponding texts elicited from native speakers of German and of Russian, respectively.

The paper begins by reviewing relevant background research in section 2. Section 3 gives an outline of the conceptual frame of reference underlying the study, including a brief discussion of temporality and how tense and aspect are encoded in German and Russian, as the two languages investigated. Section 4 sets forth the formulation of predictions. Section 5 describes the study, followed by the results for LI and L2 populations in sections 6 and 7, respectively. Section 8 discusses our findings, and section 9 concludes this paper.

2. Background Research

We include some work that has been done on spoken narratives and literary texts because there are not many studies addressing the relationship between tense-aspect switching and the grounding principle in written discourse. …

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