LINGUIST List 12.2136

Thu Aug 30 2001

Review: Murray & Smyth, Intermediate Russian

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  1. Jennifer Bown, Review: Intermediate Russian: A Grammar and Workbook

Message 1: Review: Intermediate Russian: A Grammar and Workbook

Date: Wed, 29 Aug 2001 12:32:47 -0400
From: Jennifer Bown <bown.6osu.edu>
Subject: Review: Intermediate Russian: A Grammar and Workbook

Murray, John and Sarah Smyth (2001) Intermediate Russian: A
Grammar and Workbook. Routledge, paperback ISBN 0-415-22103-X,
x+217pp.

Jennifer Bown, The Ohio State University.

Intermediate Russian is a grammar and workbook
intended for students of Russian at the "intermediate"
level. The authors themselves give no indication of
the meaning of the term "intermediate," so one
must assume that the book is intended for students who
have achieved a proficiency level of 1 or 1+ on the
scale established by the American Council on the Teaching
of Foreign Languages (ACTFL1986).

Intermediate Russian (IR) is not intended as a stand-
alone textbook on which to base an entire language
course, rather it is meant to supplement other
available course materials. Its stated goal is to
"provide scope for practicing and consolidating
Russian structures" (xi). As its subtitle
suggests, IR focuses primarily on developing learners'
knowledge of Russian grammatical structures through
reading texts and written exercises. It does not
contain communicative activities, listening texts, or
open-ended written exercises.

IR is divided into three parts, each consisting of six
units organized by theme. The units contain brief
explanations of grammatical points, example sentences
drawn from authentic Russian texts and practice
exercises. Though the majority of the exercises
require students to work at the sentence level, each
chapter contains at least one extended passage from a
variety of genres. All of the texts are authentic,
taken from recent Russian journals and newspapers (the
authors list the periodicals in the introductory pages
of the book). Many of the sentences in the exercises
are drawn from the lengthier texts throughout the
book. In addition, the book contains answer keys
making it suitable for both independent study and use
in class.

Part One focuses on the norms of social interaction,
especially politeness formulae and speech registers.
Among the topics covered in this section are
establishing and maintaining a relationship with your
interlocutor, seeking and giving information/advice,
offering to do things, and expressing wishes and
desires.

Part Two examines various genres or narratives: diary
entries, memoirs, anecdotes, biographical sketches,
news items, and the rather nebulous category of
"narratives in the future," which focuses on the use
of various forms of the future tense. Each chapter
treats a different genre and briefly examines elements
common to all of the genres treated in this section.
In particular, units seven through twelve focus on
various means of sequencing events in time, the
function of verbal aspect, word order, and
punctuation. Rather than examining the structure of
these narratives and the typical moves associated with
each genre (see for instance Swales 1990), this
section uses narrative texts as a departure point for
discussing the form and function of grammatical items
that appear in the sample texts. These grammatical
features include, among others, prepositions and
adverbs of time, the comparative degree of adjectives,
and past passive participles.

In Part Three the authors consider various ways of
describing objects, people, and events. The units in
this section are structured according to syntactic
categories: pronouns, compound nouns and imperfective
gerunds, aspects and perfective gerund, negation and
numerals, and participles. This section treats these
categories in formal terms, with little reference to
their meaning and function.

Following the main body of the grammar is a "Key to
Exercises" containing answers for every exercise in
the book. Intermediate Russian also includes a short
three-page index referencing grammatical features
(e.g. declension of numerals and partitive genitive),
speech acts (e.g. apologizing and thanking), as well
as lexical categories (e.g. "verbs commonly used to
express death"). The index is little more than an
alphabetized table of contents, as it references only
the number of the unit in which the discussion
appeared rather than the actual page number.

Evaluation.

Despite its title, Intermediate Russian is more
appropriate for advanced undergraduate students who
have attained a proficiency level of at least 2 on the
ACTFL scale. Many of the texts are syntactically
very complex and require a much better command of
Russian than students at an intermediate (1 to 1+)
proficiency level are likely to have. Any teacher
planning to use this text in language classes should
also be warned that the text uses fairly sophisticated
grammatical terms such as "antecedent," "collocation,"
and "attributive adjectives" without any explanation
of the terms. This is terminology with which the
average student may not be familiar, and instructors
using this book in language courses would be well
advised to offer supplemental explanations in less
sophisticated terms.

The authors' ambitious attempt to combine a functional
approach to Russian grammar with a more traditional
approach results in a rather jarring mixture of
pragmatics and formal grammar explanations. In many
instances, the topics combined in one unit or section
seem to be random, for instance the inclusion of
third-person imperatives under the heading of "Naming,
greeting, and congratulating" (Unit One), or the
inclusion of a unit on verbs of motion (Unit Six)
within the section titled "Interacting". It must be
noted, however, that the organization of language
material is one of the most complicated aspects of
writing a textbook, and not every language feature
fits nicely into any chosen framework.

Given the book's functional orientation, the exercises
in the volume are problematic. Most of the exercises
are sentence-level, involving fill-in-the-blank
activities, choosing an appropriate ending for a
sentence, and sentence transformations. Even in Part
Two, with its focus on narratives and connected
discourse, the majority of the exercises contain
single sentences taken from larger texts. Discourse
analysts have long realized that the interpretation of
a sentence is constrained by the co-text, and nowhere
is this more true than in narratives. In removing the
sentences from their larger texts, the authors have
deprived learners of the context that would help them
interpret the sentences.

In addition to the abundance of sentence-level
exercises, many of the exercises do not serve the
purpose for which they were intended. For example,
Unit One contains a discussion of addressing
strangers, including a list of several common forms of
address. The exercises that follow the discussion
require students to identify where each of several
exchanges might likely take place; however, most of
the answers can be ascertained with no attention to
the forms of address, defeating the purpose of the
exercise. Several other exercises throughout the book
suffer from a similar problem.

A number of the exercises require extensive world-
knowledge that many students are not likely to have.
Unit One, for example, has students test their
knowledge of public places by matching a series of
places (the State Puppet Theater, the Central Stadium,
and a canal, to list a few) with the names of the
people for whom they were named. Few students are
likely to know who Obraztsov was, let alone that the
state puppet theater bears his name. A better approach
would be to provide cultural notes throughout the
chapter and then include exercises to see if students
had learned the cultural information. As the text
stands now, instructors would be advised to either
skip those exercises or to provide students with
additional cultural information before assigning them.

It should also be noted that Intermediate Russian
contains only discrete-point grammatical exercises;
this allows the authors to provide full answer keys
for every exercise and makes the book suitable for the
self-directed learner. Nevertheless, it is
unfortunate that a book with at least a partial focus
on pragmatics should rely exclusively on exercises
that are so counter to the ideas behind that approach
to language. The second part of the book, with its
focus on narrative genres, for instance, would
particularly benefit from assignments to write a
narrative based on the models in each unit, while
communicative role-plays would seem an ideal
supplement to the discussions of speech acts in Part
One.

The lack of glossaries in the text is also
unfortunate, particularly as a number of the exercises
require students to combine adjectives and nouns or
verbs and noun-phrase complements to form "common
collocations." Perhaps more importantly, the fact
that the lexical level of the texts is probably beyond
intermediate (1 to 1+) or even low-advanced (2) level
learners provides a strong rationale for including
glossaries.

Despite this volume�s shortcomings, it is a useful
resource for advanced-level language learners. It
affords learners an opportunity to review and practice
Russian structures and read authentic, contemporary
Russian texts. Additionally, the volume provides
useful insights into some of the norms of social
interaction and written narratives, and as such can
serve as a good supplement to a four-skills,
communicative textbook.

References:
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
(1986). ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. Hastings-on-
Hudson, New York.

Swales, John. (1990). Genre Analysis: English in
Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge, New York:
Cambridge University Press.


Jennifer Bown is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department
of Slavic and East European Languages at Ohio State
University. During the 2000-2001 academic year, she
served as Assistant Director of the Russian language
program. Her dissertation research focuses on the
acquisition of Russian by in a self-directed learning
environment.
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