Speech behaviour of Latvian Russian-speaking schoolchildren in argumentative texts

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The article analyses the problems, which Russian-speaking schoolchildren in Latvia meet while creating written argumentative texts. The topicality of the article lies in the peculiarities of forming the schoolchildren’s linguistic personality in the diaspore during bilingual education. The author focuses on the main problems in the schoolchildren’s written speech and their reasons. The criteria of text content-analysis were as follows: 1) the level of argumentation autonomy; 2) the quality of the arguments; 3) the level of argument unfoldedness and using different types of arguments; 4) speech expressiveness and observing language norms. The ninth-graders’ text analysis led the author to the following conclusions: the compositions of most schoolchildren partly correspond with argumentative texts (in the aspect of their contents, structure, quantity and quality of arguments, means of thought development); they lack intertextual embeddings (the texts are “poor” in the sense aspect); in the speech behaviour there dominates an explicit I-communication (reflexive observations, egocentric direction of their behaviour), pragmatic, naked outline of facts even if the topic of the text motivates to verbalize emotions; there are a lot of language errors. The results of the research are based on analysis of 3296 ninth-graders, which the schoolchildren wrote at Russian language exam on finishing secondary school in 2016-2018. The results of this and further researches will allow the author to deeply investigate the process of forming primary and secondary linguistic personality of a Russian-speaking schoolchild in Latvia.

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Introduction One of the problems being discussed in linguistics and linguodidactics in the end of the XXth century is the analysis of individual speech portrait - the notion introduced by M.V. Panov (phonetic portrait) (Panov, 1990). A lot of modern articles are devoted to speech portraits of an intellectual, TV presenter, politician, personage of an artistic text, student, schoolchild. The principles of creating the portrait, its constructing and analysing are not described in detail in linguistics (to be more exact - in linguistic personology), there are many scientific definitions of the notions, sometimes contradictious to each other. However, most scientists keep to the point that without understanding how a schoolchild’s linguistic personality and his speech behaviour in different situations shape up and develop, what are linguodidactic characteristic of his speech, we cannot create an effective model of teaching a language (the first, second of foreign). The novelty of the research is in focusing on the peculiarities of forming a linguistic personality of a schoolchild in the diaspore. This problem is under-investigated in modern science. On analysing the investigations held by Russian scientists among teenagers, the author managed to build up a speech portrait of a modern schoolchild (See: Sobkin, Tkachenko, 2004; Mamaeva, 2007; Zakharchenko, 2009; Nazarova, 2014, etc.). It generally coincides with the portrait of a Latvian Russian-speaking schoolchild (see for more information Gavrilina, 2018: 7-10). But there are also some differences caused by the peculiarities and developing potential of Russian diaspore linguistic environment, educational linguistic environment, the specifics of inner cognitive motifs of the diaspore schoolchildren, their relation to the quality of their own speech in their first (native) language. A linguistic personality is formed, first of all, in the communicative space of the linguistic environment. E.Yu. Protasova reasonably argues that “the language of a person is mainly formed by the efforts of the environment” (Protasova, 2017: 4). In Latvia, there is a binomen of the linguistic environment, i.e. together with the Latvian one, a Russian environment also functions rather actively. However, this does not mean that Russian linguistic environment in Latvia has the same developing potential for a Russian-speaking schoolchild (linguistic environment as an educational factor), as the linguistic environment in Russia. The diaspore environment is filled with other (specific) realia, nominatives, it is bilingual. T.P. Mlechko, studying the specifics of a new diaspore linguistic personality (after 1991), points out that “the knowledge structure of a Russian linguistic personality out of Russia is characterised by a compulsive additional component: apart from individual, national and universal knowledge and notions, it also has certain inonational” (Mlechko1, 2012: 60). That is why the author introduces the term “diaspore cognitive environment”, where “compression of the “native” and decompression (because of the “foreign”) of the thesaurus of a linguistic personality take place” (Mlechko2, 2012: 33). E.V. Burvikova underlines the subjective factors (components): motivation and the peculiarities of the child’s personality (Burvikova, 2012: 117). When speaking about a diaspore schoolchild, motivation relates not to himself only, but also to his parents. Are the interested in their child’s acquiring the first (native) language, what role do they subscribe to this language in their child’s life, to what extent are they willing to help him acquire the language? The research “Development of Parent Involvement Models for Bilingual Preand Primary School”, held in 2016-2017 among the parents of Russian speaking pre-school children and pupils of elementary schools in Latvia, Finland, and Estonia showed the following: · all Latvian parents were interested that their children efficiently acquire the Russian language; · answering the question why their children need Russian in the future, the parents allocated the variants in such a way (according to their importance): 1) to stay Russian (keep their identity); 2) to use Russian in their hobbies in free time; 3) to have Russian friends; 4) to be Russian among the Russians; 5) to use Russian at work; 6) to get education in the Russian language (Dzhalalova, Protasova, Gavrilina, et al., 2017: 35-37). The specifics of diaspore school educational environment is in its bilinguality. It is obvious that bilingual education requires that teachers understand that bilingualism is not double expression of one reality, not translation in two languages inner ideal speech put between experience and expression, it is “the ability to move thoughtfully and effectively in two parallel worlds with the help of two languages” (Overbeke Van, 1972: 46). According to F. Grosjean, “a bilingual person is not a sum of two full or not full monolingual people: it is mostly a unique and specific linguistic configuration. Coexistence and constant cooperation of the bilingual’s two languages creates a different, but united linguistic creature” (Grosjean, 1989: 6). However, in the situation of acquired bilingualism, which is mainly observed in Latvia, a lot of Russian-speaking schoolchildren (later also students) in oral and written communication mainly translate from Russian into Latvian, but not automatically switch languages. This can be more vividly seen in their written texts. This translation definitely influences the quality of their speech behaviour in the first and second languages. One of the most important criteria of a schoolchild’s linguistic personality development is its texts. First of all, written ones. This speech form, according to L.S. Vygotsky, is an organising base in constructing the system of language, speech norming and forming inner speech of a person (Vygotsky, 1960). As written speech compared with oral is more deliberate, controlled and considerate, it gives more information about a person (a schoolchild as well) and his speech behaviour. The aim of the article is to characterize the specifics of speech behaviour of Russianspeaking nine-graders of Latvia in their written argumentative texts. Material and methods The materials of the research are 3296 compositions of nine-graders, which children wrote at Russian language exam on finishing their secondary school in 2016-2018. In the second part of the exam, schoolchildren were asked to write an argumentative text of 250-300 words on one of the proposed topics. The assessment criteria were: 1) the level of argumentation autonomy; 2) the quality of the arguments; 3) the level of argument unfoldedness and using different types of arguments; 4) speech expressiveness and observing language norms. To analyse the compositions the method of content analysis was used. Results The ninth-graders’ argumentative text analysis revealed serious problems in children’s speech behaviour: · the compositions of most schoolchildren partly correspond with argumentative texts (in the aspect of their contents, structure, quantity and quality of arguments, means of thought development); · they lack intertextual embeddings (the texts are “poor” in the sense aspect); · in the speech behaviour there dominates an explicit I-communication (reflexive observations, egocentric direction of their behaviour), · pragmatic, naked outline of facts even if the topic of the text motivates to verbalize emotions; · a small quantity of verbal forms - participles and adverbial participles, and participial and adverbial participial constructions, adjectives in comparative and superlative degrees, language expressive means (tropes and speech figures): · a lot of language errors, mainly stylistic and punctuational ones, contingence of written and oral communication. Discussion Creating a text (especially written) is definitely a complicated task for a schoolchild. For example, text structuring, according to scientists, is a meta-linguistic skill, which is hard to form for a schoolchild in any language regardless of a certain language (Schoonen, Gelderen, Stoel & others, 2011: 46). In most cases, as our analysis shows, ninth-graders’ compositions consist of one detailed paragraph. The topic is usually not covered completely, texts contain much irrelevant speech material. Teenagers are better in creating narrative texts, then descriptive or argumentative texts. Argumentation is a complicated form of monologue, because “reality is expressed in it as intermediated by mental (logical) operations. As a result, there is a necessity of doubleexpressed logicality, i.e. following objective (cause-and-effect relations between events and phenomena) and notional (obeying laws of thoughts) logic” (Kirillova, 2008). Whatever our pupils write about, they aim at stenograph of event description with minimal use of means of linguistic expressivity. According to E. Bialystok, one of the reasons of this speech pragmatism is that “form the point of view of cognitive processes creating a text for a bilingual is more complicated than for a monolingual. This is due to the fact that during writing and speaking a bilingual’s cognitive sphere constantly controls two language systems, supressing one of them and activating the other” (Bialystok, 2007: 218). But in our situation, this alarming symptom in schoolchildren’s speech behaviour should be also explained by the fact that at the lessons in the second (Latvian) language, which pupils do not speak well yet, they try to understand the most important things - facts, general contents (which is usually expressed by nouns, verbs, adverbs). “Wonderful details”, expressed by adjectives, tropes, figures are not usually understood, seem useless and then do not appear in schoolchildren’s speech in their first language. This is proved by children’s answers to our questions. The question “There are a lot of nouns and verbs in your composition. Why do you think there are almost no adjectives?” is usually answered as follows: “Why should I have them? I have told about everything without them”, or “I wanted to write about what happened and not how it happened”, or “The main thing is to render information. I’ve done it”. Our analysis of ninth-graders’ compositions has shown that only 25 % of them clearly formulated the problem, 24 % could interpret the thesis. And even in this case their compositions rarely contain traditional introductions: lyrical digressions, rhetoric questions, argumentation of the title (judgement), dialogue with the imaginary communicator, quotations, proverbs, etc. Most introductions lack argumentative features, the thesis is formulated in such a way that it does not need any evidence (it is useless to prove apparent things!). About 30 % of nine-graders followed compositional rules of an argumentative text and formulated the requested number of arguments. The rest of them partially or fully changed the thesis during argumentation, did not try to prove the correctness of the thesis or did not use logical means of argumentation, factual and cultural information in argumentation. For example, describing Old Riga, the place which is worth visiting for potential tourists, only some schoolchildren used cultural and historical facts (not always correct ones) as arguments. The main aim of visiting Old Riga is, as most children think, to entertain, have a rest, have some fun, meet friends, go shopping. Discussing the topic “Travelling is like a small life” (What is the role of travelling in human life? Why do people travel? - the key questions of argumentation), the nine-graders’ arguments were as follows: travelling is 1) entertainment, emotions, something new in a dull life (44 %); 2) the opportunity to forget your problems (32 %); 3) an adventure which can change you (18 %); 4) a new experience (knowing other nations, their customs and traditions) (5 %); 5) an opportunity to share your experience (to tell other tourists about potential mistakes in travelling) (1 %). As we see, getting new experience, knowledge (one of the most important aims and values of travelling) in the children’s system of values takes only the fourth place. Most of the nine-graders (89%) proved their points of view basing on their own experience or their friends and relatives’ experience, and this is really a serious problem which could be characterised as failure to overstep the boundaries of their own reflexive experience. There is almost no factual or cultural information, so there are no references to the sources of information in the schoolchildren’s texts as well, i.e. the children do not try to integrate their knowledge which they get at other lessons (history, geography, culturology). What is the reason of this? On the one side, in order to use “strong” arguments in argumentation, you should have a broad outlook, know a lot, be able to find new information and assess it. Communication with Latvian teachers and schoolchildren shows, regretfully, the opposite thing: children’s knowledge of the world is poor, stereotypical, unobjective (and what is more important - children do not worry about it). On the other hand, in Latvian schools there is such a practice as “preparing children for compositions”. It is interesting that schoolchildren from different Latvian regions write very similar compositions (we mean the contents and children’s speech behaviour). This is due to the fact that teachers often impose samples, ready-made phrases. We have the same situation in our schools; the situation was characterised by E.L. Erokhina (Doctor of Pedagogy, Deputy Director of the Institute of Philology of Moscow Pedagogical State University) in one of her interviews: “Teachers do everything for children not to think themselves, but create a profane text and get their bonuses, while the teachers get their points”. As a result, one of the features of Latvian Russian-speaking nine-graders’ written texts (as well as those of twelve-graders and students) is that children do not write compositions, they construct them. This situation was described in I.Yu. Gats’ monograph “Linguistic education of schoolchildren in modern language situation”: “We are losing the feeling of border between texts, created on our own, and somebody else’s texts. <…> Acquiring somebody’s texts is the means of entering the culture” (Gats, 2012: 37). The author explains it by the fact that “in a new communicative environment a traditional mono-dimensional text is replaced by a multi-dimensional hypertext, <…> the method of constructing textual and mental spaces is changed” (Gats, 2012: 65). In their argumentation our ninth-graders prefer explicit I-communication. Their texts lack understanding of somebody else’s point of view, perception of another person, understanding another perspective (“perspective taking” is deeply researched in N. Buckley, L.S. Siegel, S. Ness’s works). In our opinion, it can be explained by the fact that at language lessons (and the lessons on other humanitarian subjects) the main attention is paid to students’ introspection, creating texts where students only need to express their own opinion of a problem or situation. As a result, an egocentric speech behaviour is formed, and the pupils’ texts are primitive in their syntactic, semantic, and thematic characteristics. Such texts, which are also not very long (it is impossible to speak a lot about your own relation), “simple in theme and rheme developing, are created by people with unbalance between left-brain and right-brain verbal structures” (Butakova, 2016: 5). Only 10 % of pupils wrote their texts according to language norms. “The rating” of the pupils’ mistakes is as follows: the first place - different stylistic mistakes (90 % of pupils), the second place - punctuation mistakes (61 %), the third place - orthographic mistakes (37 %). As we see, the main problems are stylistic mistakes and faults in pupils’ speech behaviour, the most typical being verbalism, tautology, pleonasms, clichés, breaking rules of lexical combinability. Conclusion Despite of long-term experience in bilingual education in the schools of national minorities in Latvia, the question about what and how to teach pupils is still controversial, politicized, not solved didactically, first of all in the aspect of forming a successful pupil’s linguistic personality in the first and second languages simultaneously (the personality is to be bilingual). It is really important to understand this, because “the second language grows on base of the first one, is formed depending on the level of the first language. The level of the first language is like a doorstep for learning the second one” (Protasova, 2005). Or, according to G.I. Bogin, a secondary linguistic personality is “a structural mould of the primary linguistic personality” (Bogin, 1998: 3). In Latvia, to the moment of finishing school pupils usually get either not so effective linguistic personality in the two languages or “deleting” the first (Russian) language. The modern reform in education in Latvia (Skola 2030, 2018) substantially limited the possibility to form an integral linguistic personality in the Russian language for Latvian schoolchildren. Until 2018, the proportion of the Russian and Latvian languages in education depended on the bilingual model chosen by the school. Nowadays, in Latvia there have been adopted поправки to education law which decreased the role of the Russian language in school education (Skola 2030, 2018). This situation can lead to further decrease of the quality of pupils’ speech behaviour (first of all, written one). We have to solve many important didactic problems. One of them (probably, the most important one) is how in a new educational environment the idea “culture - language - personality” can be realized in school course of the Russian language. The second problem is the choice of texts for lessons of the Russian language. There is a situation that the texts which schoolchildren work with at the lessons of the Russian language and literature are substantially different form the texts of their natural speech environment. The latter ones cannot be called pattern and aesthetically ideal, but they are real language practice of the children. As a result, there is a contradiction in the children’s consciousness, so “schoolchildren do not see learning their native language as a necessary condition of organizing their own everyday language existence” (Gats, 2017: 215). This does not mean that at the lessons we have to deny culture texts which form the speech ideal. This means that didactic material should also include Internet texts. The third problem is the criteria of composition themes, text logics and composition, their genre and assessment. It is obvious, that writing a composition for many modern schoolchildren is hard and dull work, that does not bring any pleasure or satisfaction and is to a great extent stereotypical. It is hardly possible to get interesting and informative texts from children. We think, that T.V. Vasilenko is right saying that the reasons of low quality of modern schoolchildren’s compositions not in the fact, that “children stop thinking about the problems of the modern world and analysing them”, but in the fact that “composition is understood as a “dead” genre, “вещь в себе”, having no practical relevance in real life” (Vasilenko, 2015).

About the authors

Margarita A. Gavrilina

Latvian University

Author for correspondence.
Email: margarita.gavrilina@lu.lv
1, Imantas 7 liniya, Riga, LV-1083, Latvia

Doctor of Pedagogical Sciences, Professor


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