Pragmatic Transfer and Language Proficiency: American Learners of Arabic

By Nader Morkus
Submitted to Session P5003 (Innovations in Foreign Language Curricula, Instruction, and Proficiency Assessment, 2017 Annual Meeting
Language Acquisition;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Research in interlanguage pragmatics (ILP) has shown that language learners’ production of speech acts in L2 is influenced by pragmatic transfer from L1 (Beebe et al. 1990; Blum-Kulka 1982; Maeshiba et al. 1996; Trosborg 1987). Researchers trying to understand this phenomenon have examined a number of factors that affect transfer from L1. One such factor that has received considerable attention is learners’ L2 language proficiency, specifically: whether there is a positive or negative correlation between pragmatic transfer and proficiency. However, research findings of this line of research have been inconsistent and often contradictory. While some studies have reported positive correlation between pragmatic transfer and proficiency (Allami and Naeimi 2011; Beebe et al. 1990; Blum-Kulka 1982; Hill 1997; Keshavarz et al. 2006; Kwon 2003; Takahashi and Beebe 1987), others have reported the opposite tendency (Bu 2012; Maeshiba et al. 1996; Phoocharoensil 2012; Ramos 1991; Ren and Gao 2012; Shardakova 2005; Takahashi and DuFon 1989; Tamanaha 2003).

The present study aimed to contribute to this line of research by investigating the relationship between pragmatic transfer and proficiency among a group of language learners never previously examined in ILP research: American learners of Arabic. The study focused on the speech act of refusal as realized by American learners of Arabic in Egyptian Arabic. Twenty American learners of Arabic (10 intermediate and 10 advanced), and two baseline groups (10 native speakers of Egyptian Arabic and 10 native speakers of American English) participated in the study. Data were collected using enhanced open-ended role-plays (Billmyer and Varghese 2000), which consisted of 6 situations eliciting refusals of requests and offers in lower, equal, and higher status situations. Results showed that both learner groups engaged in negative pragmatic transfer from English with regard to the overall frequency of direct and indirect strategies, individual strategy use, strategy use relative to status, and discourse-level features. The findings also showed that the intermediate learners engaged in negative pragmatic transfer more frequently than their advanced counterparts. The findings, therefore, provide support for negative correlation between pragmatic transfer and language proficiency.

The present study has made methodological improvements on Arabic speech act research by eliciting refusals orally, which is particularly crucial in a diglossic language such as Arabic. In addition, it employed the role-play method for data collection, which allowed for eliciting interactional multi-turn data, and made it possible to analyze refusals and examine transfer at the discourse level.