Maria  Shardakova

Maria Shardakova

Associate Professor, Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures

Russian Language Program Director


  • Ph.D., Bryn Mawr College, 2005

Research Interests

second language acquisition; language pedagogy and assessment; intercultural pragmatics; cross-cultural humor; politeness and impoliteness; linguistic identity construction; statistical methods in language studies; discourse analysis and narratology

Current projects:
How do we learn a second (in some cases third or fourth) language and why are some of us better at this? What pedagogical interventions can facilitate and accelerate our learning? These are the broad questions that guide my research. Under this large umbrella, I explore such areas as interpersonal language use and the role of context in how learners acquire social language skills and symbolic playful behaviors; the relationship between language and identity, including construction of cultural identities in educational materials; playful practices in the foreign language classroom and negotiation of (im)politeness.

In my early projects, I focused on speech acts' production by American adult learners of the Russian language and found that it was not grammatical inaccuracies but rather pragmatic inappropriateness – lengthy explanations of circumstances that have led to an offense instead of a quick repair offer in apologies, unnecessary verbosity in situations where native speakers expected conventional formulaic language – that led to communication breakdowns and to American learners being perceived as affected or rude (Interlanguage Pragmatics of the Apology, 2009). Neither increases in linguistic proficiency nor study abroad experience seemed to alleviate pragmatic inappropriateness which clearly warranted pedagogical intervention. A doctoral project conducted by one of the graduate students whom I co-advised convincingly demonstrated how even a short-term instruction in pragmatics can dramatically improve learners' social uses of the Russian language (Edie Furniss, "A web-based instructional module for the teaching of routine formulas in Russian," 2015).

My work in interlanguage pragmatics eventually led me to conversational humor. One of the interesting, although somewhat counterintuitive, things that I found was that most conversational humor, regardless whether speakers used their first- or second-language, was pre-made—in other words, interlocutors were not creating humor on the spot, rather they rehearsed playful responses that they had learned or used previously ("How to Be Funny in a Second Language," 2010). When I further compared cross-cultural conversational humor, it became clear that there existed culture-specific patters in playful behavior and even accompanying repertoire of playful identities and specific linguistic devices. For instance, in their playful interactions, young college-educated American males regularly used banter adorned with crude expressions; their Russian counterparts, on the other hand, opted for self-flagellation and markedly bookish language. Needless to say, when American learners transferred their playful practices into Russian contexts, their humor fell flat, making its recipients cringe ("Cross-cultural Analysis of the Use of Humor by Russian and American English Speakers,"2012).

My next study showed that speakers used cultural scripts not only for production but also for interpretation of first- and second-language humor and for character judgment about the humorist. Humor turned out to be a high-risk social behavior that always invited judgment about the humorist's character. I am now convinced that conversational humor is a taught skill and everyone can learn it ("Playful performances of Russianness and L2 symbolic competence,"2016).

Recently, inspired by the inability of a great number of my students in a large survey course to identify a writer's stance and purpose, I have become interested in reading skills and their development in first and second languages. I believe that today's writers and platforms have created a new reader who is primed by a specific set of clues and usually reads not for the substance but the judgment ("American learners' comprehension of Russian textual humor," 2016).

Another area of my research addresses language teaching and learning as a cultural practice situated in a broader sociocultural context and shaped by dominant language ideologies. Thus, in my recent chapter to  The Routledge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition and Sociolinguistics (forthcoming), I survey high-stakes language tests, discussing how tests' design and validity constructs have often served political interests rather than measured linguistic abilities proper.

I enjoy teaching, which I find tremendously inspiring and thought-provoking. My teaching is closely tied with and informed by my research in second language methodology, pedagogy, and assessment.
As director of both the Russian Language Program and Russian Flagship Program, I work closely with many faculty members and graduate students. I believe in collaboration and try to engage graduate students as early as possible in various projects, be it teaching during academic year or summer, pedagogical material development or research projects.

I am currently leading two collaborative initiatives: creating instructional materials for Russian language tutors and motivated students who want to work on their own and developing open-source online modules for language instructors. The latter initiative is sponsored by the federal Language Flagship 2020-2021 Teacher Training Workshops grant.


We should teach vocabulary not only as separate items that freely combine in a sentence but also as mutually primed and connected. ("American learners' comprehension of Russian textual humor," 2016)

When discussing texts, instructors should help learners discern culturally specific ways of presenting reality, engaging students in the analysis and comparison of cultural scripts and their connection to concrete social worlds. ("American learners' comprehension of Russian textual humor," 2016)

A great deal of interpersonal communication is accomplished by using formulaic language. Yet, language learners usually lack this type of language and neither increase in linguistic proficiency nor exposure to the target culture helps them acquire formulaic expressions (Interlanguage Pragmatics of the Apology, 2009)

Humor is a high-stakes interactional practice: by engaging in playful behavior, the speaker invites her interlocutors to pass judgment on her character (""I Joke You Don't":  Second Language Humor and Intercultural Identity Construction," 2013).

While the pressures of the new economic reality foreground L2 users' sociolinguistic ability to recognize important social dimensions of communication and adjust their linguistic behavior accordingly, signaling membership in a particular social group and expressing one's identity, the focus of high-stakes tests remains, to a great extent, on global proficiency, devoid of contextual details. ("Testing sociolinguistic competence," forthcoming)


Selected publications:
"The DCT as an assessment method for L2 humor production"by Nancy Bell, Maria Shardakova, Rachel Shively. In César Félix-Brasdefer,  Julia Sykes, and Rachel Shively (Eds.) New directions in researching, teaching, and assessing L2 pragmatics. Mouton de Gruyer. 2020.

"Testing sociolinguistic competence," in Kimberly Geeslin (Ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition and Sociolinguistic. Routledge.

"Politeness, teasing, and humor," Maria Shardakova. The Routledge Handbook of Language and Humor, 219-234. Taylor and Francis, 2017.

Summary: In her section in the Handbook, Maria Shardakova discusses the interplay between various forms of humor in relation to politeness, arguing that no judgment regarding social role of humor can be made outside of real-life interaction, in which interactants negotiate the extent of humor appropriateness. One of the ways to address contextual situatedness of humor is to analyze interactions within the framework of a community of practice (Wenger, 1998). Each community of practice develops its own rules of engagement, including perception of (im)politeness. To illustrate this postulate, Maria explores playful practices in a Russian language classroom.

"American learners' comprehension of Russian textual humor," Maria Shardakova,The Modern Language Journal, 100(2), 466-483, 2016.

Summary: It may sound counterintuitive, but most existing studies on second-language (L2) humor focus on oral communication. In her exploratory study, Maria Shardakova examines how L2 learners negotiate textual humor, addressing the role of textual properties (genre and humorousness) and learners' linguistic proficiency. The study found that learners ability to apprehend and appreciate textual humor depends on their familiarity with genre conventions and linguistic devices signaling humorous intent. The study also found that different stages of humor comprehension required different sets of knowledge. The role of proficiency was more complex than expected and primarily evidenced in the accuracy of humor recognition independent of text properties. The article concludes with pedagogical suggestions.

"Playful performances of Russianness and L2 symbolic competence," Maria Shardakova, Pragmatics and Language Learning, Vol. 14, 183-210, 2016.

"I Joke You Don't: Second Language Humor and Intercultural Identity Construction," in Social and cultural aspects of language learning in study abroad, Celeste Kinginger (Ed.),  John Benjamins Publishing, 207-239, 2013.
Website link:

"Cross-cultural Analysis of the Use of Humor by Russian and American English Speakers," inSpeech Acts and Politeness Across Languages and Cultures, Leyre Ruiz de Zarobe and Yolanda Ruiz de Zarobe (Eds.). Peter Lang AG, International Academic Publishers, Bern, 197-237, 2012.

Interlanguage Pragmatics of the Apology: How Americans Acquire Sociolinguistic Competence in Russian, Verlag VDM Dr. Müller, Germany, 2009.