Contrastive Analysis

Brief Overview

This is a brief overview of contrastive analysis for the reader to understand the main points. Readers are encouraged to study more in-depth to gain a full appreciation of this hypothesis. At the end are guiding questions for the educator to contemplate instruction and contrastive analysis.

Contrastive Analysis (CA) was a hypothesis pioneered in the late 1950s by Robert Lado and his book Linguistics Across Cultures. CA was developed to examine the differences between two languages in an effort to identify problem areas for language learners. At this time, behaviorism and structuralism (structural linguistics) were predominate in the field of language learning. The psychological theory of behaviorism, which proposed that people learned languages through habit formation (Stimulus-Response-Reinforcement), and structural linguistics, which accesses the different structures in language, were the two driving forces behind the teaching method Audio Lingual Method (ALM).

It was assumed that second language learning was dependent upon transfer from the native language to the one being learned. If the languages shared the same structural elements, order, and meaning, then positive transfer would occur and assist in learning. However, if structural elements, order, and meaning did not translate appropriately, then this could cause negative transfer or interference which was believed to cause difficulty in learning a second language.

The idea of positive and negative transfer meant that a detailed examination of the two languages needed to be undertaken to identify where students would have problems. By examining the languages and identifying the problem areas, educators could then predict the elements of negative transfer and drill these elements to form the “correct” habit. In this way, behaviorism, structuralism, and CA all worked together to inform the educator of which components needed more attention.

A bottom-up approach to learning was conceived where the smaller aspects of the language were learned before higher order aspects. For example, the educator would first teach phonetics so the students could learn all the sounds of the new language. Then, the next step would be something higher such as lexicon or morphology. If one looks at pyramid diagram of language, the smaller fundamental parts of such as phonetics would be on the bottom, whereas discourse would be at the pinnacle.

The Results

CA failed miserably. The hypothesis’ ultimate goal was to help educators find areas where negative transfer would be problematic and predict errors learners would make; however, that was never able to be realized because it could not predict where students would have problems. CA could not account for students having the same instruction but progressing at different rates. If instruction and transfer were causes for learning, then why wouldn’t students consistently attain the same level?

Also, examining languages for areas of interference led to many puzzling classifications that made predicting problems convoluted. Some examples are: same meaning but different form, similar form but different meaning, same meaning and form but different distribution, etc…

Although CA failed to produce the results it strove to provide, it still lives on today, but on a more conceptual level in regards to communication.

How Not to Use

  • Instruction is not the key: CA’s whole basis was to provide educators an account of what elements would provide students difficulty so they could teach/drill these areas. Instruction is not the key, but the students and what they bring in the form of experience, motivation, aptitude, etc… is the key. The concept of teacher/student centered classrooms applies here. CA was strictly teacher centered which goes against the preference of student centered classrooms today.
  • Interference: A student’s first language could possibly interfere with his learning a second language, but it’s not easy to diagnose. Learning is far too complex to attribute non-learn solely on first language. The native language could play a role, but other factors such as environment, learning strategies by the student, motivation to learn the second language, etc… all play a role in learning.
  • Bottom-up approach: CA, thanks to Charles Fries, adopted a bottom-up approach where the simpler elements are learned before the higher level elements. When it comes to communication in the form of speaking, students can still communicate without explicitly learning the phonetic system. An example would be young children in second language pre-schools or kindergarten, they will be able to communicate and not have learned all the phonetics of the language. Although most programs for beginning language students focus on phonetics, it is not necessarily a requirement.

Strategies for Use

  • Interference/negative transfer: Sometimes the student’s first language DOES interfere with use or learning a second language. Many times students will think in their first language and literally translate it into the second language. However, this can cause problems as the literal translation of the expression is not always appropriate for the context. For example:

Korean: Jusaeyo

English: Give me.

In Korean, “jusaeyo” can be a command or a request. Therefore, Korean students may think it is correct to say to the educator, “Give me an eraser.” However, “give me” doesn’t work in this context as it could be seen as command to the educator to do something. In these instances negative transfer happens and a quick explanation and moving on is all that is warranted.

  • Bottom-up approach: When it comes to speaking, bottom-up approach may not be absolutely necessary, but for reading it probably is the best approach, Starting off with the phonetics of letters, then to sounding out words, and then reading sentences can give the student a solid foundation. However, students can begin to recognize simple words from just listening and visual stimulation. They may gain the ability to recall those words from memory while looking in a book without understanding the individual sounds. Although this happens, it’s more pragmatic to assist the student in learning how to read.
  • Language is very complex: CA began the first real examination between the differences in languages. Languages consist of various features, and not all languages incorporate the same features. Just this fact can help put the educator’s job into perspective. Not only is the educator instructing on a complex structure of language and social rules, but the learning process entwined with this makes the job even more complex. It’s always good to keep this in mind.


Final Thoughts

Although CA didn’t help to prove behaviorism or structuralism as it intended, it began the first true comparison of languages focused on instruction (not translation as in the Grammar Translation Method). There is not much applicable information relating to instruction in regards to CA since behaviorism and structuralism fell to the wayside, but it does bring some perspectives that can assist an educator. In another way, CA was a door to bigger and better forms of instruction and learning theory. With its failure, it enabled a deeper understanding of language education as a whole, and for that, it must be recognized.