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Pragmatic Accommodation and Linguistic Salience in U.S.-Russian Political Discourse


Prosody and formulaic phrases are phenomena that bridge gradient and categorical classification. They carry systematic linguistic meaning, but may also act as a pragmatic resource. While linguistic meaning is invariant, pragmatic resources tolerate idiosyncratic use, through which speaker intent is revealed. My dissertation investigates how second language and heritage speakers bridge this distinction between gradient and categorical implementations of prosody and formulaic phrases, challenging studies that predict prosody is one of the most difficult skills for second language learners to acquire and problematizing the assumptions of speech accommodation within intercultural interactions.

Speech accommodation and sociolinguistic theory predict that when speakers affiliate, they will mirror socially salient features of their interlocutor's speech in their own production. Yet a speaker’s ability to accurately reproduce phonological phenomena may be linked to the critical period of language acquisition. Native-like articulation of prosody has been associated with age of acquisition, whereas the ability to learn lexical items continues to grow into adulthood. Thus, prosody and lexical items are theorized to differ in their degree of perceptual salience for late second language and heritage speakers. When attempting speech accommodation, the perceptual abilities of the two classes of speakers may render the former a preferred resource for heritage speakers, and the latter for late second language speakers.

Political interviews often center around polarizing issues that evoke a display of stance through pragmatic cues. Therefore, this genre serves as an ideal setting for the study of intercultural speech accommodation. Russian-American political discourse shows how ready and able political actors may be to engage in accommodation, yet without a sound knowledge of linguistic systematicity in their second or heritage language, attempts at reproducing the linguistic strategies of a foreign interlocutor will ultimately fail to convey a similar meaning, generating repercussions for the effectiveness of their communication.

This dissertation analyzes which linguistic phenomenon—prosody or formulaic phrases—are preferentially assimilated by Russian and American political actors when speaking their second or heritage language to a native audience. Case studies reveal a preference for prosodic accommodation among all subjects and support a disassociation between traditional measures of linguistic proficiency and the ability to reliably reproduce prosodic phenomena. Stressful interviews place greater cognitive demands on speakers and may differentially inhibit linguistic processing of prosodic and lexical phenomena.

Utilizing a novel method for detecting speech accommodation, findings document cross-cultural speech accommodation patterns and discuss the theoretical and pedagogical implications for second language and heritage intonational phonology, second language acquisition, linguistic processing, and intercultural pragmatics.

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