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Comparing communicative competence of native and non-native speakers of English (on the example of students of English philology)


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Marta Dąbrowska

Comparing Communicative Competence of Native and Non-Native Speakers of English

(on the Example of Students of English Philology)

The idea to focus more closely on the question of communica­

tive competence occurred to me for the first time when I was in the process of collecting data for my dissertation which was a comparative study of polite expressions in British English and Polish. It was then that, beside distributing the two versions of the same sociolinguistic questionnaire to the representatives of the British and Polish culture, respectively, I also decided to ask a control group of Polish students at the English Department to fill in the English version of the questionnaire in order to run a brief pilot study on the question of bilingualism and commu­

nicative competence. Observing the growing level of proficiency in English amongst the students at the English Department due to their much more intense exposure to foreign languages and the ever-improving conditions of the learning process, especially when compared to the state of things a decade or two ago, I asked myself whether the prototypical student of a foreign lan­

guage might in fact have grown to be a bilingual person. The strict


approach to the phenomenon defines a bilingual person as some­

one who is characterised by “simultaneous learning of two lan­

guages from infancy” (Arsenian 1937: 81). Many linguists, how­

ever, have agreed that a bilingual person may also be anyone who possesses “a native-like control of two languages” (Bloomfield 1935: 56). When adhering to the latter, one should introduce fur­

ther subdivisions as regards the type of bilingualism. With regard to the age of acquisition of the two respective languages, Grucza (1981: 12), for instance, distinguishes between three types of learn­

ing situations: a/ when LI and L2 were both simultaneously ac­

quired in early childhood, b/ when LI was acquired earlier and L2 later in childhood, and d when LI was acquired in early child­

hood, and L2 in adulthood. Thus, this classification would place the majority of the students at the English Department in cate­

gory d. A more general basis for classifying bilinguals is provided by e.g. Spolsky (1998: 48), who distinguishes between compound bilinguals, i.e. “those whose languages are closely connected be­

cause they were ‘learnt after (and so through) the other,’” and co-ordinate bilinguals, i.e. those “who had learned each language in separate contexts, and so kept them distinct.” In this context the students would typically fall into the second category, which then would constitute the basis for an assumption that they would have “two meaning systems,” as opposed to the compound bilin­

guals who would have only one. What might we then assume regarding the communicative competence of the students of En­

glish? Communicative competence, contrary to Chomsky’s idea of an idealised, psycholinguistic competence to produce grammat­

ically correct sentences (cf. Wardhaugh 1992; Mesthrie 2000), is defined as “the speaker’s ability to select, from the totality of gram­

matically correct expressions available to him, forms which ap­

propriately reflect the social norms governing behaviour in spe­

cific encounters” (Gumperz 1972: 205; cf. Hymes 1972). Thus, in view of the above, it might be expected that, no matter how


218 Marta Dąbrowska

grammatically native-like their utterances might be, the students may nevertheless structure their sociolinguistic behaviour accord­

ing to the rules of only one of the language systems they pos­

sess, and this, in my view, would predominantly be the system of their first language, in this case Polish, as the one whose norms they have been exposed to for a longer period of time, and con­

sequently they manifest a higher degree of acculturation in this language.

In order to test my hypothesis I selected four speech acts which comprised of thanks, apologies, disagreements and refusals. It may be noted that they themselves fall into two separate subcategories, i.e. those which are typically considered to be manifestations of politeness, and are therefore expected to be often of a formulaic conventionalised nature, and those which do not naturally be­

long to the scope of linguistic etiquette, and therefore may or may not be uttered with a certain degree of politeness. Thus, broadly speaking, the symmetrical relationship between the speakers will naturally allow for a rather direct mode of expression, whereas the asymmetrical relationship will typically induce some hedged, more polite expressions on the part of the speaker in the inferior position.

The data was elicited from 34 students of the English Depart­

ment by means of a sociolinguistic questionnaire, the same version that was originally given out to the British English respondents.

The students represented both genders, though in the proportion of 2 to 1, i.e. 22 women and 12 men, which, though dispropor- tional, reflects the gender distribution in the Department. Most of the questionnaires were filled in by the participants of a course in sociolinguistics which I conducted about 2 years ago for stu­

dents of all years, thus yielding a fairly good representation of all the ages in the Department (i.e. 19—24). It is therefore natural that the present findings will count as valid only for this age group, and before they can be used as a general reflection of other Polish-


-English users, they would have to be tested in a number of other contexts as well.

Thus, in the discussion to follow, the data collected from the Polish users of English will be compared to the responses provided by British English speakers of both genders. It is hoped that the analysis will verify whether, in producing the respective speech acts in English, the Polish students of English get affected by Pol­

ish patterns of directness of expression, and whether the two gen­

ders of the Polish speakers employ similar patterns of speech acts to those attested for the English users (Dąbrowska 2001).

The first of the selected language functions is thanking. The situation inducing the use of thanks was given a very conventional character, viz. “A middle-aged man has helped you to put your luggage on the rack. What do you say?”. The idea behind this was that the speaker should provide the simplest, most spontaneous re­

sponse to a favour of relatively minor importance. Altogether, the juxtaposing of the responses of the British speakers and the Polish students of both genders proved that the competence of the latter in terms of the adequate linguistic behaviour in situations equiv­

alent to this was very high. The detailed analysis of the thanking formulas used by the British women showed that the majority of speakers (i.e. 91%) uttered thanks by means of employing direct forms of thanking, viz. thanhyou, most of these were also conven­

tionally emphatic in their nature, which manifested itself through the use of the adverbs verylso much (the bare thanks you being at­

tested to 26% of the responses). In 33% of the cases the words of thanks were followed by words of appreciation and compliments, e.g. That was hind of yow, I do appreciate it.

The comparison of these responses with those of the Polish fe­

male students manifested a very high correlation with the above- mentioned formulas. All but one speaker made use of the direct words of thanks, what is more, the most popular formula was that of conventionally emphatic thanks, viz. Thanh you verylso much


220 Marta Dąbrowska

(95%). The bare than\ you was also recorded in 13% cases. Sim­

ilarly to the native speakers, at times the students also expressed their appreciation directly, e.g. If not for your help I wouldn't have been able to put it on the racl^ myself-, I’m most grateful. In terms of percentage of the latter the two groups showed a marked sim­

ilarity, as the Polish women resorted to them in 31% of the re­


Concerning the male students, the forms of direct thanks and their distribution in their responses appeared to be again parallel to the native speakers’ behaviour. Thus, in 55% of the cases the British men, just like British women, would typically use Thanl{

you very/so much, in 25% — the bare Than/{ you, and occasionally Thanks a lot (11%). This distribution would be closely matched by the behaviour of the Polish speakers, i.e. Thank you very/so much (75%>), Thanks a lot (9%), Thank you (8%). Additionally, the British respondents offered occasional words of appreciation, as e.g. (That’s) very fynd of you (27%), this option, however, did not feature amongst the male Polish users.

The second group of the four selected speech acts is that of apologies. Similarly as in the case of thanks, the apologies elicited by the questionnaire were induced by a situation which called for a spontaneous, fairly emphatic response, as the transgression was not serious. The context eliciting the response was as follows: “At a party, you spill wine on your host’s white table cloth. What do you say?”.

This time also the native and non-native users of English demonstrated similar tendencies in their linguistic behaviour, however, some minor differences could be seen, particularly as re­

gards the behaviour of women of both nationalities. Thus, both the British and the Polish women made use of direct apologies, notably those containing the expression I am sorry, many cases of which were additionally strengthened by the emphatic adverbs, like very, so, terribly, really, aufully. However, a certain difference


to be observed here concerned the use of exclamations — while in the case of the British women they appeared in only about 30%

of responses, for Polish women they accounted for almost 50% of the users, which may indicate more restraint on the part of the British women.

A characteristic feature of the female apologies in English were offers to compensate for the damage, which appeared in 50%

of the responses, e.g. Can I help you get it cleaned?', I’ll take it home and wash it for you, etc. With regard to the Polish users of En­

glish, only 9% of the responses actually included a similar offer, viz. Can I make up for it?', I will try to clean it now. This differ­

ence might be explained on the grounds of face-saving strategies, and consequently, the degree of polite meanings which are con­

ferred by the respondents of the respective nationality, with the British women manifesting politeness, more specifically positive politeness (cf. Brown and Levinson 1994), to a greater extent.

In the case of apologies, fewer differences were this time observed with regard to the male speakers. All the British re­

spondents and all but one Polish student apologised directly by means of employing the conventional 1 am sorry pattern, which at times could be more affective than this when additional ad­

verbs of emphasis, like very, really, terribly were used. The latter were recorded with a much higher frequency in the British speak­

ers (100%) than in the Polish users of English where it appeared only in 84% of the cases, 75% of which were emphatic. The affec­

tive nature of the British men’s responses can be noted again with regard to the use of exclamatory elements as Ohl, (oh my) gosh!, Oops!, How awful!, Oh my goodness, Oh dear, Oh my God!. Indeed, those were also recorded in the responses of the Polish men, there was, however, a slight majority of those noted for the British users (43%) as opposed to (30%) recorded for the Polish students, the difference, however, does not appear particularly significant. The fact that the emphatic character of expression seems to be predom­


Ill Marta Dąbrowska

inantly visible in the British men may well be a result of the clash between their attempts to save their face and the actual situation.

The above demonstrates that certain cultural differences af­

fecting the communicative competence of the Polish students of English can already be seen even in the case of fairly formulaic responses. It is, however, of greater interest to observe the differ­

ences which stemmed from the analysis of disagreements and re­

fusals. The situation designed to elicit disagreements was more complex than in the other two cases in that it provided the respon­

dents with two categories of interlocutors, i.e. an adult stranger and a friend, respectively (the precise wording describing the sit­

uation was as follows: “a. A friend of your parents’, b. a friend of yours express a different opinion from yours in the discussion.

How would you disagree?”). This, consequently, presents us with two types of dyads which differ in terms of power distance, the former being asymmetrical and the latter symmetrical.

The underlying assumption for the asymmetrical dyad was that due to the lack of relative power on the part of the respondent the disagreements provided would be more conventionally polite and at the same time less rigid and direct. The analysis of the per­

formance of the British women produced a variety of strategies, amongst which those featuring prominently were indirect forms of disagreements, i.e. those which did make use of the verbs to agreelto disagree, they, however, were mollified by apologetic ele­

ments, like I’m sorry (to have to. . ,),but. . .;I’m afraid. . .or other softening gambits, e.g. Well, I am not sure that . . .; I don’t thinly that. . I’m afraid I can’t agree with your opinion; Well, I have to say I don’t actually agree with you (33%). Another fairly frequent reac­

tion was stating a different opinion, recorded in 20%, e.g. I’m sorry but I thinly there is another point of view here-, I’m sorry to have to take a different view. What is also worth noting, however, is the use of silence in response to the interlocutor’s views, which was recorded in ca. 20%, or even of a certain tentative agreement with the other


person’s opinion, even though the speaker’s own view was meant to be different, e.g. Yes, but. . I know what you mean . . . (13%).

In this dyad the Polish female students would employ a similar selection of strategies, with the conspicuous difference, however, in the percentage of the indirect disagreements, as e.g. I’m sorry to say this but I can’t quite agree with you', Well, I am afraid I must dis­

agree on this point, where the Polish users employed this strategy in 55% of the cases, what is more, the apologetic and mollifying devices were fewer in numbers here. At the same time the expres­

sions of a difference in opinion were also attested more frequently (35%) than it was the case with the British respondents, whereas the attempt to agree or to avoid an open encounter by sticking to deferential silence were used to a lesser extent (10% and 4%, re­


This general presentation of the female responses in the asym­

metrical dyad shows that the Polish users of English, even though they employ grammatically and situationally correct responses, tend to carry over their native tendency to speak more firmly and present their viewpoints directly. It should not, therefore, be sur­

prising that these observations would hold true to an even greater extent with regard to male speakers. Thus, the British men dis­

agreed indirectly in 35% of the cases, moreover, 20% of the respon­

dents presented their personal views. Few cases of actual agree­

ments were also attested (12%). In the case of the Polish speakers, the order of the above-mentioned strategies, i.e. the most typical ones, was different. They disagreed indirectly in only ca. 25% e.g.

I’m sorry to disagree with you on this point, whereas they seemed to enjoy presenting their own opinion more often since this strat­

egy was recorded in 45% of the responses, e.g. My opinion on this matter is different', From my point of view. . . ; I have a different opin - ion. The analysis of the male behaviour in this dyad does indicate the speaker’s necessity to speak openly and to have a right to one’s own opinion, which on the whole seems to characterise the Pol­


224 Marta Dąbrowska

ish speakers much more than the British ones, and this could be detected also when the Poles were using English.

The tendency to be very direct, on the point of being blunt or even rude, was much more firmly manifested in the informal, i.e.

the symmetrical dyad. The distribution of the disagreeing strate­

gies used by both genders and both nationalities was obviously dif­

ferent than in the asymmetrical dyad, and the mitigating devices appeared far less frequently — in 23% for English women vs. 13%

for the Polish ones, and in 8% in the case of the British men vs.

9% for the Polish men. In the case of the British women it was noted that they still preferred indirect forms of disagreements, e.g.

I’m afraid I have to disagree', I’m sorry but I don’t agree (27%), the strategy which this time was closely followed by the expressions of their own opinion (20%), as in I thin^just the opposite', I have a right to my oum opinion. Unlike in the previous dyad, here women occasionally expressed their disagreements directly (in 18%), e.g. I totally disagree. The same dyad with the participation of the Pol­

ish female speakers was markedly different in terms of the direct­

ness of expression. The predominant type of response was that of criticism and exclamation, e.g. You’re wrong!', Oh, come on, it’s rub­

bish!', Come on, give me a brealf.', You must be mistaken!, this being recorded for 50% of the respondents, as opposed to only 9% for the British women. These formulas were closely followed by di­

rect disagreements, attested to 40% of the Polish speakers e.g. / absolutely disagree', I disagree with you on that', No, I don’t thinly sol.

Some speakers (20%) also chose to present their opinion directly, as in I thinly that...; I am of a completely different opinion', I thinly the opposite.

To a certain extent, a similar distribution of the speech acts was also found in the dyads with male participation. The strategy favoured by the British men was that of direct disagreements, as it was used by as many as 40% of the respondents (women used it only in 18% cases), e.g. I don’t agree with that at all', I disagree


with that. Interestingly enough, Polish men did not seem satisfied with just disagreeing, as this strategy was recorded for only 18%

of the respondents. They, however, showed a far greater prefer­

ence for criticism and exclamations, just as it was the case with the Polish women. They chose this option in 58%, e.g. You’re wrong!-, Stop talking gibberish man!-, Rubbish!-, Nonsense!. This form of re­

action appeared also in the responses of the British men, but less frequently (28%). At times, especially in the case of the younger speakers, they might take very rude forms, e.g. Rubbish!-, Bull­

shit!. The responses of the British men also showed the tendency to present one’s own opinion, which this time was recorded for 20% of the speakers. The Polish users of English did not utilise this option frequently in this dyad (16%), showing quite an oppo­

site tendency to what the situation was like in the asymmetrical dyad. This might indicate that when in a position of equal power, Polish speakers show preference for a firm voicing of their views by means of expressive speech directed personally at the interlocu­

tor, which also manifests itself in a foreign language, while in the case where they are not in a power position, the right to have their personal views can be assured mainly through stating their beliefs openly, though still in a conventionally polite way.

The comparison of the native and non-native behaviour in the context of refusals presents itself as a more complex case, since there seem to be marked differences in the linguistic behaviour not only between the two cultures, but also between the two gen­

ders within each of the nationalities. Therefore, let us just state the most conspicuous tendencies observed within each group of speakers and dyads, these being formed on the basis of the follow­

ing situation: “a) Your brother, b) your superior ask you to help them with the cleaning. However, you are very busy. How do you refuse?”. And thus, when the responses of the female speakers were taken into consideration, it could immediately be observed that in general terms the strategies used by the British women


226 Marta Dąbrowska

were almost identical in both dyads, with explanations playing a major role in the refusals (50% for the symmetrical vs. 54% for the asymmetrical dyad), these being closely followed by apologies (31% vs. 40%). In both contexts the female speakers declared their will to help at some later stage, which again showed a similar dis­

tribution (18% vs. 22%). What certainly marked the difference be­

tween the two dyads were expressions of direct refusals, which in the informal dyad appeared in 36% of cases, while the superior received this form of a refusal in 13% of the responses. On the other hand, the formal dyad induced even 9% of cases of agree­

ments, this proving how significantly the power distance may af­

fect the speaker’s behaviour. While the typical strategies utilised by the Polish female students were analogous to those of the British women, i.e. explanations and apologies, their frequency of use was higher in both dyads. And thus, explanations appeared in the sym­

metrical dyad in 72% of the responses, and apologies in 59%, while the refusal to the superior induced explanations in again 72% of the cases, but the number of apologies grew to 77%, at the same time gaining very significantly in their emphatic character (cf.

Sorry vs. I am terribly Itruly /really sorry). Unlike in the case of the British respondents, the Polish women did not diminish the num­

ber of direct refusals in their encounter with the superior, and thus those were recorded in 36% (vs. 32% in the former dyad) of the cases, respectively. As regards the strategy of declaring the will­

ingness to help at some other point, which as can be remembered, appeared with equal frequency in the British responses, the Polish students put this possibility forward in 31% of the cases, but only when refusing their superior and never when addressing their hy­

pothetical brother. What is more, the Polish speakers never agreed to comply with the superior’s request, as was the case with some British women. These differences in attitude undoubtedly stem from the distinct cultural backgrounds of the speakers, even de­

spite the same linguistic medium in which they appeared. Again,


this might be the greater directness of linguistic production of the Poles that brought about the distinction (cf. Goddard 1997). It al­

lowed the Polish women to eliminate the use of declarations of help when refusing their brother, which seems to be a matter of convention in English and a way to avoid a threat to the hearer’s face, at the same time it did not suppress the use of direct refusals towards the superior.

The above-mentioned distribution of strategies was matched by the behaviour of the male respondents, but only as regards the British native speakers. Thus, in both dyads they manifested ex­

actly the same number of explanations (69% for both) and apolo­

gies (50% for both), also the offers to help later were close in num­

bers (23% in the informal dyad vs. 30% in the formal one). How­

ever, the number of refusals decreases from 19% in the symmet­

rical dyad to only 3% in asymmetrical dyad. Also, just as in the case of British women, the male speakers agreed to follow through the request, which was recorded in 7% of the responses. Thus, the British female and male speakers seem to employ a similar ap­

proach when dealing with the FTA of refusal. This, however, is not matched by a similar parallel between the two genders of the Polish users of English. Indeed, a certain analogy may be noted, but only in the formal asymmetrical dyad, and only with regards to the dominant strategies which in the case of both genders were apologies (83% for the male speakers vs. 77% for women) as well as for explanations (73% for men vs. 72% for women). However, the percentage of offers of help is certainly lower in the male re­

sponses, as it was manifested in 8%, surprisingly, however, it does not hold true for direct refusals, whose number grows to 33%. As regards the symmetrical dyad, the most frequent strategy, but by far lower than in the other dyad and in the female responses, was that of an explanation, this being attested in 50% of the cases. Un­

expectedly, second to these only were words of reproach, which appeared in 41% of the responses, often combined with impera­


228 Marta Dąbrowska

tives, e.g. Get lost, cant you see I’m busy? (this strategy was attested to 15% of the British speakers). Direct refusals were attested in 16% of the cases and offers of help in 8%. It may therefore be concluded that whereas the encounter with a person of a greater power position makes the Polish users of English employ con­

ventionally polite, formal and emphatic strategies which charac­

terise the Polish language in asymmetrical contexts, the absence of power distance allows for a greater freedom of expression and the abandoning of conventions of linguistic etiquette.

To summarise the problem presented above, it needs to be em­

phasised that, due to the very general and selective nature of the undertaken analysis the conclusions need to be treated as tentative until some more comprehensive study is carried out in this field.

The overall evaluation of the performance of the students of En­

glish, both the male and the female ones, proves to a large extent that in terms of the structures and speech acts used, the students manifested a high degree of linguistically competent behaviour. It was particularly visible with regards to the use of the more for­

mulaic expressions like thanks and apologies, in which case the students seem to have to a large extent managed to internalise the rules of their social usage. However, the situations which call for a less automatic type of response and which at the same time ap­

pears to be of a particularly high face-threatening nature, as the speech acts of disagreements and refusals, certainly generate a no­

table degree of uncertainty and hesitation. In such cases it seems natural to resort to the most familiar reactions that the speaker has developed, and these will most naturally be the first language reactions, conditioned by years of usage. The visible differences in terms of the directness of expression, typically attributed to the Polish speakers when juxtaposed to the British ones, who show great preference for understatement and indirectness of expres­

sion (cf. Gołębiowski 1992; Goddard 1997), have clearly mani­

fested themselves in the present study particularly when looking at


the disagreements and refusals. The repercussions of this discrep­

ancy might vary. Among others, they may lead to some serious misunderstandings stemming from the fact that, having been de­

ceived by the generally native-like performance of their interlocu­

tors, the native speakers of English might not be prepared for this difference in approach. Therefore, the general conclusion, which has surfaced here, is that while the students of foreign languages may in many cases be bilingual, they will not necessarily be bi- cultural.

Works Cited

Arsenian, S. 1937. Biltngualtsm and Mental Development. NewYork:

Columbia UP.

Bloomfield, L. 1935. Language. London: Allen.

Brown, P., and S. Levinson. 1994. Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Dąbrowska, M. 2001. “Selected Expressions ofPoliteness in English and Polish.A Sociolinguistic Study. Diss. Jagiellonian U.

Gołębiowski, M. 1992. “Rola kultury i kulturoznawstwa w naucza­ niu języków obcych (postulaty badawcze).Język, kultura kom­ petencja kulturowa. Materiały XIII sympozjum zorganizowanegoprzez Instytut Lingwistyki StosowanejUW, Zaborów, 5—8 listopada 1987 r.

Ed. F. Grucza. Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warsza­ wskiego. 185200.


230 Marta Dąbrowska

Goddard, C., andA.Wierzbicka. 1997. “Discourse and culture.” Dis­ course as SocialInteraction. Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary In­

troduction. Ed.T.A. vanDijk. London:Sage. 231—278.

Grucza,F. 1981. “Glottodydaktyczneimplikacje bilingwizmu.” Bil­

ingwizm a glottodydafytyĄa. Materiały z V Sympozjum zorgani­

zowanego przez Instytut Lingwistyki Stosowanej UW, Białowieża 26-28 maja 1977. Ed. F. Grucza. Warszawa: WydawnictwaUniw­

ersytetu Warszawskiego. 9-40.

Mesthrie, R. etal.,eds. 2000. Introducing Sociolinguistics. Edinburgh:

Edinburgh UP. 316-353.

Gumperz, J. 1972.Sociolinguistics and communication in small groups.” Sociolinguistics. Ed. J.B. Pride and J. Holmes. Har- mondsworth: Penguin. 203-224.

Hymes, D. 1972. “On Communicative Competence.” Sociolinguistics.

Ed. J.B. Pride and J. Holmes. Harmondsworth:Penguin. 269-293.

Spolsky,B. 1998. Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Wardhaugh, R. 1992. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Oxford:



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Instructions : Imagine that someone (such as a foreigner) does not understand the meaning of a word and asks you to explain the meaning of the items below.. Please write the

NNB parent (a non-native bilingual parent) – in the context of the research on NNB in Poland it means a person who, while being a Pole and living in Poland, talks to the child in