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Contrastive Analysis and Second Language Acquisition

Contrastive Analysis was used extensively in the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) in the 1960s and early 1970s, as a method of explaining why some features of a Target Language were more difficult to acquire than others. According to the behaviourist theories prevailing at the time, language learning was a question of habit formation, and this could be reinforced or impeded by existing habits. Therefore, the difficulty in mastering certain structures in a second language (L2) depended on the difference between the learners' mother language (L1) and the language they were trying to learn.


Contrastive analysis was born as a result of a rather simple assumption. Aware of the same errors appearing so regularly and methodically in the works of increasing numbers of students, language teachers gradually came to assume that they could predict what mistakes the majority of learners would make. From such mistakes, the assumption went on; teachers would be better equipped to foresee difficulties and, consequently, would become wiser in directing learning and teaching efforts. Contrastive Analysis (CA) became mainstream in the 1960s. According to Larsen-Freeman & Long (1991) in (Yoon, 2002), this was a time when structural linguistics and behavioral psychology were rather dominant in the study of language learning. CA proponents came to advocate that L2 instructional materials could be prepared more efficiently by comparing two languages and, in the process, predict learners’ behaviors and difficulties. Some researchers even believed that when similarities and differences between an L1 and an L2 were taken into account, pedagogy could be more effective and useful. Such arguments gave birth to the basic ideas of Contrastive Analysis. The theoretical foundations for what became known as the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis were formulated in Lado's Linguistics Across Cultures (1957). In this book, Lado claimed that "those elements which are similar to [the learner's] native language will be simple for him, and those elements that are different will be difficult". While this was not a novel suggestion, Lado was the first to provide a comprehensive theoretical treatment and to suggest a systematic set of technical procedures for the contrastive study of languages. This involved describing the languages (using structuralist linguistics), comparing them and predicting learning difficulties. During the 1960s, there was a widespread enthusiasm with this technique, manifested in the contrastive descriptions of several European languages, many of which were sponsored by the Center of Applied Linguistics in Washington, DC. It was expected that once the areas of potential difficulty had been mapped out through Contrastive Analysis, it would be possible to design language courses more efficiently. Contrastive Analysis, along with Behaviourism and Structuralism exerted a profound effect on SLA curriculum design and language teacher education, and provided the theoretical pillars of Audio-Lingual Method. The basic premise of Lado's (1957) Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis is that language learning can be more successful when the two languages – the native and the foreign – are similar. Some linguists call this situation “positive transfer”. In an overview of Lado’s CAH, Schuster (1997) indicates that English learners of German or German learners of English are destined to have a positive transfer because the two languages do have many similarities. On the other hand, the theory stipulates that learning will be quite difficult, or even unsuccessful, when the two languages are different. An example in point is English visa-a-vi Asian languages. As such, Lado and his supporters believe that second language teaching should concentrate on the differences, with little or no emphasis on similarities. Though this argument may sound logical in theory, it is full of loopholes in practice. Teaching differences alone means that important parts of a foreign language are not taught at all. This may have grave consequences on the language learning process; weakening instead of strengthening it. Another argumentative point in Lado's theory is the model of language learning. Lado calls grammatical structure “a system of habits.” According to this view, language is a set of habits and learning is the establishment of new habits (Lado, 1957, p. 57). However, Schuster (1997) reports that the majority of research on second language acquisition shows strong disagreement with such a view. Indeed, this thinking goes into the very core of the mainstream behaviorist view of language learning, championed by Bloomfield and Skinner, but attacked by Chomsky who was convinced of the existence of a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) in order to construct a generative grammar of linguistic competence out of the language samples one encounters. Like Chomsky, but from a different angle, Klein (1986) is at odds with Lado’s CAH. Klein asserts that the results of research based on Lado's theory were of less help than expected. One reason for this shortcoming is the fact that structural similarities and dissimilarities between two linguistic systems and actual production and comprehension are two different things. The author points out that contrastive linguistics is basically concerned with the linguistic systems or structures, whereas acquisition has to do with comprehension and production. Hence, a specific second language structure may be easy to perceive but hard to produce, or vice versa. This being the case, prediction of possible transfers should not be based on comparisons of structural properties but on the way in which learners process such properties. For example, a German learner of English has to learn the sound of /th/ in the English word “that”. If she is unable to produce this sound, she might replace it by similar German sounds, for example /z/. This is not predictable if one compares only phonetic (i.e. structural) properties. Although Lado did not claim his theory to be an all encompassing theory of CA pedagogy and, as a matter of fact, did call for further research on his ideas in order to get final validation, his CAH remains hotly criticized and contested. Sridhar, for one, observes that, “… as the claims of contrastive analysis came to be tested against empirical data, scholars realized that there were many kinds of errors besides those due to interlingual interference that could neither be predicted nor explained by contrastive analysis. This led to renewed interest in the possibilities of error analysis.” (Sridhar, 1980, p. 223).

The Strong, Weak, and Moderate Versions of CA

In the 1970s, Lado’s CAH underwent some scrutiny of its predictability. In an influential article, Wardhaugh (1970, p.124) stated that the hypothesis could be classified into two versions: strong and weak. The strong version predicted that the majority of L2 errors were due to negative transfer. The weak version, on the other hand, merely explained errors after they were made. Wardhaugh goes on to point out that, “CAH was also criticized on the ground that it could not take into account relative difficulty among L2 segments that shared the property of being different from the L1.” Also in 1970, Oller and Ziahosseiny (p. 184) proposed a moderate version of the CAH to explain the hierarchy of difficulty. The pair maintained that similar phenomena, or as they put it “wherever patterns are minimally distinct,” are harder to acquire than dissimilar phenomena. To test their views, they conducted a study which was based on English spelling errors on the UCLA placement test. Spelling errors of foreign students whose native language employed a Roman alphabet were compared with spelling errors of foreign students whose native language had little or no relation to such an alphabet. The results of this study led Oller and Ziahosseiny to conclude that as far as English spelling is concerned, knowledge of one Roman writing system makes it more difficult, not less, to acquire another Roman spelling system. Thirty years later, the basic premises of that study still holds true. Recent researchers such as Major (2001) argues that, “'Minute differences in spelling are more likely to be ignored, resulting in poor performance on related sounds, whereas noticeable differences are more often perceived due to their perceptual salience'” (as cited in Yong, 2002, p. 7). An example in point is offered by Oldin (1989, p. 17). The formal resemblance between English “embarrassed” and Spanish “embarazado” (which means “pregnant”) can lead an embarrassed Englishman to make the embarrassing remark “I am very pregnant.” On the other hand, however, Fisiak (1981) believes that both similarities and differences may be equally troublesome in learning another language. Though this moderate version of CA makes some sense, the majority of applied linguists still believe that the notion of similarity remains quite controversial. To be sure, proponents of CA have tried to suggest different ways for learners to compare their L1 with the L2 using the moderate version of CA in order to facilitate the learning process. This is usually accomplished using what is known as the “surface structure” or “deep structure” approaches. However, even such enthusiasts admit that these approaches are not totally reliable. Using the moderate CA version as his basis, James (1980) elaborates on some of the drawbacks of Contrastive Analysis using the “surface structures” of languages for comparing the similarities found in two languages. According to him, using such an approach may lead to interlingual equations that are superficial and insignificant. He states, “This situation arises when we are led to identify as sames, categories having very different conditions of use in real-life situations.” The following examples may clarify this point. Although (1) and (2) have the same “surface structure”, they are used in different “reallife” contexts. On the other hand, though (3) does not have the same “surface structure” as (1), it is, however, pragmatically just as equivalent: The postmen opened the door. Le facteur ouvrit la porte. Le facteur a ouvert la porte. (James, 1980, p. 169) It is no wonder that such inconsistencies were instrumental in making a large segment of contrastivists more receptive to the suggestion that “deep structure” could be a more satisfactory approach for making comparisons. However, one must be cautioned not to lose sight of the fact that sentences – of the same or of different languages – with a common “deep structure” are not necessarily communicatively equivalent. For example, even though the following two sentences have a common origin, “The door was opened by the postmen” and “Le facteur a ouvert la porte,” learners are simply misinformed if they are led to believe that the two sentences are equivalent in terms of their communicative potential (James, 1980, p.171). As such, one must truly wonder: If such eminent linguists in the CA field believe that their best efforts are still not fully applicable in the language classroom, then how are we, as ordinary language teachers, supposed to have the courage to try out such approaches. Indeed, the reliability of applying CA, in any of its forms, for language teaching purposes must be seriously questioned.

The Current Status of Comparative Analysis

Despite the fact that CA has been the subject of rancorous debate for some forty years, it has made significant contributions to our understanding of language teaching and learning. At present very few, if any, seriously entertain the contrastive hypothesis in its original strong form. This would mean that language teachers, for example, no longer need to create special grammar lessons for students from each language background. To be sure, much of the criticism of CA was based on the fact that such an approach was unable to meet the objectives which were set for it in the fifties. This still holds true; it is clear today that many objectives were, indeed, not met. As a result of these problems, CA and CAH began to be abandoned, at least in their strong forms (Sridhar, 1981). In the end, one must face reality; CA is undoubtedly far from perfect. One cannot deny that learners’ knowledge of their first language will ultimately influence the way in which they approach and learn a second language; yet at the same time, there is still no consensus about the nature or the significance of cross-linguistic influences. Thus, CA, in most parts of the world, has come to be regarded as having very little pedagogical relevance.

Dina M. Al-Sibai
October 26, 2004


Abbas, A. (1995, August). Contrastive analysis: Is it a living fossil? IRAL: International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 33, 195-215. Retrieved October 23, 2004, from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

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Shizuka, T. (2003). Learner's errors as clues. Retrieved October 23, 2004, from http:// www2 /IFLLT%20Chap%204.htm

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Yoon, E. (2002, December). The Effect of Second Language Experience on the Acquisition of American English / Å/ and / È/. Retrieved October 23, 2004, from linguistics/Eun%20Kyung%20Yoon/body%20I%20(intro, lit).

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