English phonetic interference

It is unusual and perhaps impossible for an emigre’s native language to remain unaffected after living abroad for several years. Phonetic and spelling rules that may have been drilled into their minds in childhood quickly disappear while the emigre struggles to master the language of their new home. Almost all people claim to read in their second language more proficiently than they speak1, however, emigres who attend high school and college in a foreign country often find themselves writing more often in their second language than in their first. After time, the second language becomes the default language of writing for these emigres and the spelling in their native language deteriorates2.
As the second language becomes more frequently relied on than the first, several aspects of the second language will affect the first, which is why many emigre Russians will speak Russian with American accents or with English intonation. In this project, I wanted to test emigre Russians in America on their spelling and test the interference of English phonetic rules on Russian spelling.
Preliminary Work
This phenomenon captured my attention three years ago, while I was living with a Russian emigre student. I would ask her to correct my Russian homework each night, but she often corrected my homework rather poorly, as her spelling was less than stellar. She claimed that since leaving the Soviet Union 6 years earlier, she had only spoken Russian and having almost no reason to write in Russian, she had forgotten some of the most basic spelling rules. Further, she claimed that spelling in Russian was different than spelling in English. This last comment puzzled me until I lived in Russia last year and approached this topic with Russians. A good friend of mine took a diktant at Moscow University and made 45 spelling mistakes (the acceptable number was 6).A native of Moscow, he had been living in France for the previous 6 years and had only returned to Moscow one month prior to the diktant. When looking at his paper, I noticed that he had made the same mistakes over and over again: single instead of double ‘’, ‘’ instead of unstressed ‘’, ‘’ after the intrinsically hard consonants instead of ‘’, and soft signs in unnecessary places but usually before soft vowels- some of the most common mistakes made by my former roommate. We had a long discussion about how he was “spelling in Russian like he did in French”.He too claimed that he had been taught to spell in Russian differently than he had been taught to spell in French, and while living in France had little or no reason to ever write in Russian.
I decided to test for phonetic influence using a diktant in two parts, the first part being a simple paragraph and the second being a more complex selection, including words that the older Russians in my group should not have used on an everyday basis3.
The Diktant Takers and Selected Procedure
I selected 6 Russians and 6 advanced American students of Russian for my experiment. Four of the Russians were heritage speakers, and two had emigrated to America at 14, having studied English in school for 4 years. The Americans had been studying Russian for just over three years and had lived in Russia for at least 5 months. All of the Russian subjects, save one young man, claimed that their English was better than their Russian, due to their higher education in America (all of them studied in average of 3 years in American high schools, and also universities). The young man in exception had been in America for 6 years and claimed to use his Russian much more frequently than his English.All students were taught English using a form of the New Word method
The Americans were less important to me as subjects, as Americans learn Russian through a much more phonetically-intense method, as they are not studying in the intense immersion situation that most Russians face when first emigrating to America. I wanted to compare their results to the Russians’ in order to compare the types of mistakes made as well as the number.
When giving the diktanty, I observed how the subjects hesitated on their spelling, counted how many times they asked me to stop the tape and re-play certain sections, and noted which sections proved to be the most troublesome for each group.4 I selected the diktanty pieces from a second-year Russian textbook, and wrote the second, much simpler piece myself.I spoke with the Russian subjects briefly beforehand, to inquire about the number of years they had been in America, how many years they had studied Russian and English in school, and how they remembered being taught to read and spell. Following the diktanty, I asked if they considered themselves to be good spellers, what sounds or groups of letters are difficult to spell correctly, and how they think their English has influenced their Russian.I asked the Americans which sounds they considered to be the most difficult for them to spell, how much easier or harder it was to spell in English as opposed to Russian, and how their Russian has influenced their spelling in English.


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