Language interference in training russian-speaking students english verb aspect

Membership in international economic organizations, integration and preferential trade agreements are of vital importance for the Republic of Kazakhstan as they will ensure its economic sovereignty and enhance its economic growthKazakhstan is becoming an increasingly important participant of the global market which has already resulted in many changes of the economy on the national level, one of them being appearance of numerous joint ventures. It is mostly noticeable in the industrial regions of the country, among which East Kazakhstan is of primary importance. According to RK Statistics Agency in East Kazakhstan there are 999 legal bodies with foreign participation which constitute 57.4% of all legal bodies registered in the region [1].

Thus, in this region there is growing demand for highly-qualified translators able to render information in a foreign language adequately, accurately and in the proper functional style. Training future translators appears to be rather challenging as students with Translation Studies Major should not only acquire certain knowledge but many specific language skills as well. Our experience of teaching translators persuaded us in the necessity of focusing on grammar of the English language in the first major courses students take as without fluent and accurate choice of adequate grammar structures in the target language it is impossible to render information properly.

The article is dedicated to language interference in training Russian-speaking students English verb aspect with a focus on the properties of Russian language aspect forms which cause confusion and are a reason of numerous mistakes made by Russian-speaking persons translating texts or interpreting from Russian into English. The survey of works on Russian verb aspect is illustrated by the results of our experiment.

The article is based on research works of Jiahua Zhang, Yu. D. Apresyan, Rakhmanova and Suzdaltseva, U. Haugen, Visson Linn, I. Shatunovsky.

The term “interference of the native language” is generally understood the way it was introduced by Uriel Weinreich who borrowed it from the representatives of Prague linguistic school [4, p. 80] and defined interference as “deviations from the norm of either language which occur in the speech of bilinguals as a result of their familiarity with more than one language”.

Language interference is reflected in all the aspects of the language, but most Russian speakers, speaking English, make grammar mistakes transferring Russian structures. It is most obviously seen in the use of verb aspect forms.

Aspect in Russian is a subjective as well as objective category as the choice of an aspect form is dependable not only on grammar regulations but also on the specific interpretation of the situation by the speaker. According to I. Shatunovsky, in the Russian language the choice of an aspect form in many cases is predetermined by the objective properties of the time-space continuum, e.g. “X жив” (“X is alive”) vs. “X умер” (“X is dead”) [2, p. 11], as these sentences can be only interpreted as a change of situations.

In other cases one and the same action/state may be interpreted differently as reality is continuously changing. Thus, when we speak about a certain state which is rather durative we can both interpret it as one and the same state of things or may treat it as a succession of consecutive states.

Yu. D. Apresyan [3, p. 58] commented on this phenomenon analyzing the semantic correlation in the pairs of imperfective/perfective verbs кончается – кончилась (is finishing – has finished/ finished), поворачивает – повернула (is turning – has turned/ turned), обрывается – оборвалась (is breaking off – has broken off/ broke off). Stating, that denotatively the sentences “Дорога кончается у леса.”/ “Дорога кончилась у леса” are practically identical though the sentence with the perfective verb (кончилась) does not only give information about the location of the object of speech but indicates that there is some moving observer watching it, he comes to the conclusion that this “watcher” is implicit in the perfective form of the verb which hints at “history” – a consequence of situations.

Thus, Pr. Apresyan shares the idea of the Chinese philologist Jiahua Zhang who says that past forms of some verbs can denote not only the static position of an object but the perception of the static object by a moving person [2, p. 15].

e.g., Впереди вдруг поднялись зубчатые стены замка.

  • The survey of works on aspect in the Russian language [6, p. 23] has enabled us to generalize the peculiarities of aspect in the Russian verb system in the following way:
  • Aspect is defined as the ability of verb to characterize the way of development of action during time, irrespective of the moment of speech [6, p. 25].
  • There is no regularity in the formation of the perfective aspect.
  • The majority of linguists state it that the perfective aspect is formed by means of word-derivation (mainly suffixes) although there is also a point of view that perfectiveness of action is shown by the change of the wordform [5, p. 214]. We should note that the former opinion is confirmed by the fact that perfective forms are built by means of wordderivation (predominantly, suffixation), irregularity in the perfective forms formation, lack of special indicators of the perfective aspect and existence of verbs without properties of the imperfective aspect (e.g. знать – know, колоть – sting, stab) [7]. The latter opinion is also quite popular with Russian linguists as there are numerous cases of opposition in the meaning of perfective and imperfective verbs with the same root. The existence of verbs having only one aspect (сидеть, находиться, раскричаться) is explained by the specifics of their lexical meaning.

Semantically, the difference between the imperfective and perfective forms lies in the implied notion of a certain limit the latter one has [5, p. 216].

This idea of the limit/completeness of the action can refer both to its beginning and the end. The limitedness of the beginning of the action is normally combined with the semantic meaning of a durative process: “И он послушно к утру возвратился ядом”, though the duration of actions expressed by some other verbs is not felt: “Запели дрожи” (zapeli – started singing) [7].

The perfective form can present some action as some thing momentary or instantaneous: “Улыбнулись сонные березки” (улыбнулись – gave a smile) or the action is treated as a temporary one: “Ты зовешь меня подруга погрустить у сонных берегов” (погрустить – to get sad for a little while).

The prefix [от-] often used simultaneously with the suffix [–ся] in perfective verbs give a verb the meaning “very durative, abruptly finished, but not because the action was completed”: “Отговорила роща золотая бирюзовым веселым языком” [3, p. 61]. Imperfective verbs present an action as continuous, ongoing without definite beginning or end: “Ты течешь как река, странное название” (течешь – аre flowing) or an action also not limited in time but intermittent, repeated from time to time: “В саду лениво подвывает собака” (подвывает – howls at times) [3, p. 61].

The choice of a perfective/imperfective form in the Russian language can be dependent on the adverbs/ adverbial modifiers used in the sentence. If the action is instantaneous, the words вдруг, внезапно, неожиданно (suddenly), в то время (at that time), тогда (then), тут же (at once) are used. If an action is repeated, intermittent the words нередко (rather often), временами (at times), время от времени (from time to time), иногда (sometimes), все время (all the time), долго (for a long time) may be used [5, p. 215].

The greatest semantic difference between imperfective and perfective forms in Russian is in the way they characterize past actions.

Besides their obvious perfective meaning which presupposes completion of the action in the past with the results either in the past or in the present “Заводы стали закрываться. Рабочие ринулись в деревню…” (стали – began, ринулись – rushed) perfective verbs indicate processes in the past connected by cause-effect relations: “Сложилось мнение, что есть науки для избранных” (сложилось мнение – the opinion has been formed. As it was formed in the past, it exists now).Perfective verbs are used to denote succession of actions in the past: “Он подошел к дому, отпер дверь и вошел внутрь.” (подошел – came up to, отпер – unlocked, вошел – came in) [3, p. 63].

Imperfective verbs present actions as characteristic of people/objects in the past, so they are often used in descriptions: “…она всегда была сама собой, произносила фразы спокойным тоном…” (была – was, произносила – said, pronounced). Similarly to perfective forms, they can denote actions which took place in the past: “… летчик был вынужден катапультироваться с самолета-истребителя. Самолет продолжал неуправляемый полет в заданном направлении и упал на территории Бельгии” (продолжал – continued, упал – fell) and repeated actions or past actions connected by causeeffect relations: “Парламенты в зарубежных странах возникли в разное время и в разных условиях. Чего только не бывало в их истории. Впрочем, одного не было наверняка: единства. Там, где возникало единство, там сразу кончался парламент, и начиналась фикция, комедия, фарс” (бывало – was, возникало – appeared, кончался – finished, начиналась – began) [7].

Much confusion is caused by a variety of prefixes/suffixes used separately and simultaneously to form the perfective form depending on the group the corresponding imperfective verb belongs to.

In an attempt to define errors in the use of verb aspect caused by the interference of the Russian language, we conducted an experiment with two groups of EFL students of the same level of language proficiency (B2).

The experiment took place in Kazakhstan American Free University, UstKamenogorsk, Kazakhstan in October 2013.

The experimental group of students was third year students with Translation Studies Major (18 people), the control one consisted of third year students (19 people) who are trained to be EFL teachers. The both groups had courses of practical grammar of the English Language.

Before the experiment we gave the students a grammar test which was aimed at checking the students’ theoretical knowledge of the Infinitive and its complexes, understanding their functions and aspect forms in order to make sure the participants of the experiment have the necessary level of the language proficiency. The results were quite satisfactory as 72% students of the groups coped with the test successfully (70-95%). The mistakes made were mainly in understanding sentences with Complex Subject with Perfect Infinitive and sentences with various aspect forms of the Infinitive after modal verbs. In fact, no difference was found in the language proficiency of the students in different groups.

The experiment itself was a series of tests on the correct use of the English Infinitive in various functions and forms and infinitive constructions, total – 100 sentences. A special focus was made on the choice of sentences which presupposed the students’ differentiation between aspect forms. The task was to translate the given sentences from Russian into English using the Infinitive.

The sentences in Russian presupposed that in the English variant the students should use the infinitive in all its functions (subject, part of the predicate, adverbial modifier, object, attribute) as well as infinitive complexes Complex Object, Complex Subject, For the Infinitive Construction. The sentences were given without indication what infinitive was supposed to use and many of them required change of word order and part of speech.

The results of the experiment which aimed at detecting errors that reflect language interference of the native language meanwhile estimating the level of grammatical accuracy after the completion of the Practical Grammar course were as follows.

The both groups demonstrated a rather low level of grammatical accuracy. In the experimental group only two students had excellent results, nine students showed rather good knowledge of the infinitive, the others did not translate the sentences adequately. In the control group the results were a little better: four students with excellent results, eight students with good results, the others did not cope with the tests. We should note that a number of mistakes depended on the function of the infinitive to be used. That is, all students translated the sentences which presupposed the use of the infinitive – the subject of the sentence or a part of the predicate. There were also few mistakes when the students were to use the infinitive in the function of the adverbial modifier of purpose. In our opinion, it may be explained by the fact that the infinitive in these functions is most common and many sentences can be literally translated word for word.

The results in the sentences with the infinitive complexes and the infinitive as the attribute were far less encouraging. We came to the conclusion that even in case the students were to use Complex Object they still tried to avoid it substituting it with the Russian-like objective clause, e.g.:

The sentence: Volta is known to have invented electric battery. (Rus: Мы знаем, что Вольта изобрел электрическую батарею) was most often rendered into English in the following way:

We know that Volta is the person who made the first electric battery.

The translation demonstrates the general tendency to render ideas in a foreign language by means of copying syntactic structures of the Russian language.

The students hardly ever rendered sentences using the Complex Subject, e.g.:

He didn’t happen to be there at the moment. (Rus: Случилось так, что его в то время там не было) with the object clause instead:

It happened that he was not there at the moment.

We observe that the participants of the experiment also tended to avoid using the infinitive in the attributive function, which in form and word-by-word translation is absolutely strange for native Russian speakers.

The sentence with the Infinitive in the attributive function The power plant to be constructed will be the biggest in Europe. (Rus: Электростанция, которая будет построена здесь, будет самой большой в Европе) was translated: Electro station which will be built here is supposed to be the biggest in Europe.

So, in general, we can state that the Russian speaking students tended to avoid using English constructions substituting them by those that correspond to the Russian ones. So, many of those whose technical accuracy was rather high preferred using either Gerund or clauses instead of the Infinitive.

However, the greatest number of mistakes (74%) was made in transferring the aspect of the Infinitive.

Such sentences as “She would give anything for this not to have happened.” (Rus: “Она бы отдала все, что угодно, только бы этого не случилось”) or “Would you like to have been born with a special power, such as mind reading?” (Rus: Ты бы хотел родиться с супер силой, такой как чтение мыслей) were translated with the Indefinite Infinitive: “She would give anything for it not to happen” and “Would you like to born with a special power, such as mind reading?”

Obviously, these errors were caused by the difference in interpretation of the same situation by Russian and English speakers. We do think such variants of translation prove the Rakhmanova’s and Suzdaltseva’s statement that “… Russian speakers perceive the thoughts of the speaker to be simultaneous and logically-connected to each other idea in the past which have no connection with the present” [5, p. 217]. It contradicts to the perception of English-speakers who mark such kind of situations as unreal ones which did not or is never going to happen and which have reflection to the present because the speaker continues discussing what she would do if there was a second chance.

The same result was in those sentences where the use of Perfect Continuous forms was presupposed, e.g. They are said to have been conducting negotiations for a long time.” (Rus: Говорят, что они ведут переговоры в течение долгого времени) was rendered as “It was said that people are having meetings for a long time.” In the sentences with modal verbs Perfect Continuous Infinitive was also rendered by the incorrect form with Indefinite Infinitive: “They must have been quarrelling since the very morning.” (Rus: Они, должно быть, ссорятся с самого утра) – “They must be quarrel since morning”.

The Russian imperfective verbs vedut and ssoryatsya suggest that the action takes place at present though the duration of action and its being habitual or going on at the moment of speech is not indicated as it is only understood by the lexical context of the sentences. Thus, if native Russian speakers do not analyze the context properly they are likely to make errors of this kind.

The results of the tests can be summarized in the following way:

Though Russian-speaking students have rather good idea of the Infinitive theory, in fact, they try to avoid using it in case there are simpler ways of expressing this idea in English, or, at least, an alternative resembles Russian structures. The majority of errors made are in rendering aspect forms which can be explained by the specificity of Russian grammar in which it is possible to render a continuous or a completed action both with the help of perfective and imperfective aspect forms that can be interchangeable in some situations and the difference native Russian and English speakers have in interpreting the same situations. It is especially noteworthy that these mistakes were not made through ignorance as the experiment participants had had grammar courses and demonstrated rather good knowledge of the infinitive theory. However, in the situation when they were limited in time and were to demonstrate practical grammar skills they failed as their errors are inadmissible for those who learn English professionally. Our greatest concern is not, though, with the results of the tests as a certain number of errors in rendering aspect were predictable but with the fact that the groups demonstrated the same level of grammar skills.

An English teacher should speak accurate English but in case he is not sure in some grammar form to choose he can always find an alternative whereas translators do not often have such a choice as many texts they work at have a predetermined lingual form which often requires the use of the Infinitive so language interference should not prevent them from doing good jobThe experiment made it clear that both future EFL teachers and students with Translation Studies Major are taught English grammar the same way. We do think that it is the wrong thing to do as though both specialties presuppose fluent English with good grammar, it is vital for the translator to skillfully use the structures and forms presupposed by the style of the text.

As a result of the overview of theory and the results of the experiment we are coming to the conclusion that acquisition of grammatical structureмof a foreign language should be only made after thorough learning of native language grammar with special focus at the analysis of the meaning and functions of grammatical forms and categories. The survey of literature on the Russian verb aspect forms led us to the conclusion that the diversity of forms with the perfective meaning makes it necessary to work out a set of correlations of Russian and English perfective forms. Having analyzed the mistakes made we propose that it is essential that students with Translation major should be taught those grammar structures which are not specific for the Russia language as speech patterns with some fixed variants of translation. In order to train students how to use certain grammatical structures in some text styles we suggest it that an abundant number of periphrastic exercises with the task to change sentences from the neutral into the scientific or publicist style using different forms of the infinitive should be developed.

In our opinion, the above mentioned steps are easy to take and they may solve at least some of the problems connected with interference of the Russian language at the grammatical level for those who learn English professionally.


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Year: 2014
City: Oskemen
Category: Philosophy