The effect of formal instruction on the development of sociolinguistic competence: The performance of compliments

Kristine A Billmyer, University of Pennsylvania


Recent research in sociolinguistics and second language acquisition has shown that non-native speakers have considerable difficulty acquiring the rules for communicating appropriately in the target language. Previous efforts to teach learners the rules of speaking have been hampered by insufficient information regarding the linguistic and sociolinguistic rules which govern speech behavior. At present, however, ethnographic research conducted in several English-speaking speech communities has provided detailed descriptions of the compliment speech act sequence and the rules which govern its social distribution, thus making this speech act particularly amenable to formal instruction. At the same time compliments have been shown to be useful social strategies, which, if used appropriately, can help learners enter into and sustain conversations with native English-speaking interlocutors. This study investigated the effect of instruction on the performance of compliments by two groups of adult Japanese females studying English-as-a-second-language at the University of Pennsylvania. Research participants in the tutored group received supplemental instruction biased toward the explicit presentation of the linguistic and sociolinguistic principles for complimenting among speakers of American English. The context for assessing the effect of this treatment was weekly conversational meetings the learners had with American female students over a three-month period. The efficacy of instruction was determined by rating and comparing the productions of compliments and replies by learners in both groups during these interactions. Instruction was shown to have positive effects for learners on five out of seven measures of performance. Learners in the tutored group produced a greater number of compliments, a higher proportion of spontaneous compliments, and a more highly varied adjectival lexicon than did learners in the untutored group. Furthermore, learners in the tutored group replied in a more native-speaker norm-appropriate manner than did learners in the untutored group, and produced longer replies and a greater proportion of replies which helped to sustain the interaction. Secondary findings suggest that instruction interacted the level of English language proficiency, resulting in a higher level of performance by the more advanced learners.

Subject Area

Language arts|Linguistics|Bilingual education|Multicultural education

Recommended Citation

Billmyer, Kristine A, "The effect of formal instruction on the development of sociolinguistic competence: The performance of compliments" (1990). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9026523.