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Mind your languages: Lingua Receptiva in Estonian-Russian communication

By D Bahtina


This study was inspired by the idea that there is more diversity in the ways languages come into contact to create efficient and fair communication. The alternative mode explored in this study is called lingua receptiva (or, LaRa): here interlocutors speak their own language and have enough linguistic and interactional competencies to understand the language of the other. Success of this mode is often related to mutual intelligibility between languages (e.g., typologically close Scandinavian constellations). However, in this study the leitmotif lies in discovering the covert potential of LaRa not within but across language families. The data come from the dialogues between native speakers of Estonian and Russian, the two biggest linguistic groups in Estonia. The participants were pre-selected with the help of a socio-linguistic questionnaire, which focused on participants' self-reported L2 proficiency, exposure to multilingual situations as well as attitudes towards the languages and social groups concerned. A C-Test was administered to obtain more objective information regarding interlocutors' proficiency in Estonian and Russian as their L2. The empirical study was based on the psycholinguistic experiments that investigate alignment in dialogues. Dyads composed of one Estonian and one Russian-speaking participant were engaged in a Skype phone call. Their task was to find each other on an abstract map and agree on a route from one point to another. In psycholinguistics, `alignment' is a state that is established once the interlocutors have reached a shared understanding of relevant aspects of reality. Based on pertinent literature, it was hypothesised that in lingua receptiva other aspects affecting successful communication include general awareness of this mode, flexibility and activation of plurilingual repertoires, exposure and attitudes to multilingual situations as well as ability to find mutual strategies of accommodation. It was argued that in LaRa alignment is actively monitored and a set of meta-communicative devices (MCDs) was proposed. The results indicated that even dyads with limited L2 proficiencies are able to complete the task successfully or can be more efficient than linguistically advanced dyads. Interlocutors reach and maintain mutual understanding by `minding' their languages with the meta-communicative devices. These MCDs vary significantly depending on the individual L2 proficiency, the composition of proficiencies within a dyad; exposure and attitudes to L2 were also found to play a role. When L2 proficiency does not guarantee mutual understanding, compensatory strategies may include code-switching. Despite the instruction to use mother tongue, the subjects in this experimental task occasionaly used their L2: all these instances were analysed in the framework of contact linguistics. Their distribution, too, depended on L2 proficiency, attitudes and exposure. It was concluded that code-switching can also function as an alignment strategy. To sum up, LaRa can be recommended as an alternative mode of multilingual communication. Equipped with plurilingual resources and meta-communicative skills, LaRa interlocutors monitor their languages by adapting to what they believe would be understood by the hearer in each specific situation. Finally, it is beyond doubt that enough common ground can be built even with quite limited linguistic resources

Publisher: Utrecht University, LOT
Year: 2013
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