Contrastive Linguistics

Author: Carl James


A definition of this linguistic subdiscipline, in its applied and its "theoretical" versions, indicating the scope of research in the field, ranging from Behaviourist interference error to neo-Whorfian cognitive approaches. The major rationales for including Contrastive Linguistics on a linguistics degree syllabus are presented together with some guidelines for organising this syllabus. A step-by-step procedure and methodology for teaching Contrastive Lingistics at tertiary level is presented, and the article contains a select set of key references.

Table of contents

Definition and recommended coverage.

'Contrastive linguistics' (or CL) is synonymous with 'contrastive analysis' (CA) but only the latter is a countable noun. It is a form of comparative linguistics, related forms being 'comparative diachronic linguistics' and 'synchronic linguistic typology'. Unique to CL is that its purview is limited to a pair of languages. There is no requirement for the language pair to be in any way 'related'. The development of CA has been from an applied to a theoretical discipline and back. It arose as an extrapolation from the language contact studies of Weinreich (1953) and Haugen (1956), describing the erosion of immigrants' first language by their new language. Lado (1957) investigated the converse: interference in learning a second language emanating from one's first . More recently CL has been practised by linguists in search of cross-linguistic confirmation of hypotheses emanating from monolingual analyses: for example, the syntax of the PRO-drop parameter has been progressively refined through submitting it to validation across a range of language-pairs. CL has regained its original practical significance under the aegis of Interlanguage studies and of Language Awareness (LA) work. Eric Hawkins (1984) proposes a 'new trivium' of language study for schools, in which LA work incorporating simple CAs should serve as interface between mother tongue (MT) and foreign language (FL) study. It has been shown through experimental teaching that raising FL learners' awareness of MT:FL contrasts facilitates the learning of difficult FL structures (Kupferberg & Olshtain, 1996).

While traditional CL compares the learner's mother tongue with the foreign language to be learnt, current applied CL compares the (often erroneous) learner's version of the FL (his interlanguage) with the standard target language (TL) version. This development signals the replacement of Lado's original predictive CL with the current descriptive Crosslingistic and the diagnostic Transfer Analysis expounded in Gass & Selinker (1983) and Odlin (1989). For a handy history, survey and assessment of CL see James (1990). The journal Papers and Studies in Contrastive Linguistics, recently retitled Poznan Studies in Contemporary Linguistics (Volume 37 dated 2001) carries quality papers on all aspects of CL. An outstanding monograph on theoretical CL is Hawkins (1986), a book that "unifies the [syntactic] contrasts" between English and German.

Rationales for teaching CL

CL is a relevant and rewarding study area for three types of student:

i) Students of 'applied linguistics' intending to teach a foreign language (mainly EFL). Since MT interference accounts for some 30% of error, to understand language transfer mechanisms in such a way as to be able to devise materials and learning activities that control them is important. While the original psychological foundation of MT interference was Behaviourist, it can equally cogently be accommodated within a Cognitivist psychological framework.

ii) Students of modern FLs will benefit from language-specific, descriptive CL courses which will serve as an aid to their own more autonomous learning and as a background to the self-diagnosis and remediation of their errors, spoken and written.

iii) Students of (theoretical/descriptive) Linguistics will need to undertake CL projects in order to put received hypotheses about the occurrence of phenomena like PRO-drop, resumptive pronoun, WH-movement etc. to the empirical test. A class based on a dozen such focussed CAs can generate an interesting set of universal claims, the validation of which becomes a well-motivated exercise.

Organising the CL syllabus

The exposition of CL proceeds level-by-level, and the traditional three levels of lexis, sound and syntax provide ample scope. Sometimes, level shifts are identified: for example, what L1 does through lexis L2 does through grammar. CAs of sound systems involve phonetic or phonological contrasts, relevant to identifying types of 'foreign accent'. Lexical CL invokes phenomena such as false friends and students enjoy doing CAs of word fields such as 'cooking verbs', 'saying verbs' (say/speak/talk/tell) or 'kinship terms'. Syntax sees contrasts of three kinds: structural, categorial and functional. More recently we have seen some new developments: contrastive pragmatics (Oleksy, 1989; Wierzbicka,1991) and contrastive rhetoric (Connor, 1996), a popular and useful component of which in the CL class is contrastive genre analysis: students enjoy investigating contrasts between ways that different languages textualise genres such as news bulletins, orbituaries, and so on.

The rise of Cognitive Grammar has revived the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis of linguistic determinism. Slobin reports research on the expression of verbal aspect and the lexicalisation of verbs of motion by MT English-, Spanish-, German- and Hebrew-acquiring children. He takes the view that speakers of each language pay the selective attention to reality in ways that their language imposes on them, but do so NOT in their private thinking but when they are doing the thinking needed for speaking. Slobin thus suggests the notion of thinking for speaking. One's MT therefore affects not one's mental capacity (competence) but one's performance, the process of speaking. In his paper Slobin addresses the implications of his findings for foreign language teaching and learning - and rediscovers Lado's CA hypothesis:

"Much of value could be learned from a systematic study of those systems in particular second languages that speakers of particular first languages find especially difficult to master." (Slobin: 23)

A methodology for teaching CL.

CL theory is not too demanding. The practice of CL is more so. Some suggested procedures:

1. Supply references to descriptions of linguistic phenomena in the students' MT:
Accessible reference grammars such as Greenbaum and Quirk (1990) or Cobuild (1990) are adequate. Any available corpus data should be referenced at this time.

2. In groups of 3 - 4, students should produce parallel descriptions of 'the same' phenomenon in the FL. This task raises the problems of comparability, equivalence and congruence - in short, what CL theory refers to as the tertium comparationis (Krzeszowski, 1990). The descriptions of MT and FL should be couched in the same metalanguage where possible: any difficulties with metalanguage that are encountered here should be noted as relevant.

3. The contrasts identified should be categorised and ranked in strength (reflecting relative learning difficulty).

4. The non-contrasts or (near) identities should likewise be identified, described and ranked for strength, which is taken as an indicator of learning facilitation.

5. Since steps 1-4 have involved description and prediction, step 5 should involve the verification of the predictions of the CA. An error survey should be be undertaken to verify whether learners do indeed commit the errors predicted.

6. This step is different for students whose main interest is linguistic theory and those who are interested in teaching. The former can be motivated to enquire why the predictions were not endorsed by the error corpus, and, having located the problem in, say, a descriptive weakness of the descriptive model, to modify that model so as to make future predictions more successful. Intending teachers prefer to move directly on to the design of remedial classroom activities and materials.


The COBUILD English Grammar (1990). London: Collins.

Connor, U. (1996). Contrastive Rhetoric: Cross-cultural aspects of second language writing . Cambridge University Press.

Gass, S.M. and Selinker, L. eds. (1983). Language Transfer in Language Learning : Rowley, Massachusetts: Newbury House.

Greenbaum, S. and Quirk, R. (1990). A Student's Grammar of the English Language . Harlow, Essex: Longman.

Haugen, E. (1956). Bilingualism in the Americas: A Bibliography and Research Guide . University of Alabama: The American Dialect Society.

Hawkins, E. (1984). Awareness of Language: An Introduction . Cambridge University Press.

Hawkins, J. (1986). The Comparative Typology of English and German: Unifying the Contrasts . London and Sydney: Croom Helm.

James, Carl. (1980/Ninth impression 1990). Contrastive Analysis . Harlow, Essex: Longman.

Krzeszowski, T. (1990). Contrasting Languages: The Scope of Contrastive Linguistics , Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter.

Kupferberg, I. and E. Olshtain. (1996). 'Explicit contrastive instruction facilitates the acquisition of difficult L2 forms'. In Carl James (ed.): Crosslinguistic Approaches to Language Awareness, Special issue of Language Awareness , 149-65.

Lado, R. (1957). Linguistics across Cultures. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

Odlin, T. (1989). Language transfer: Cross-linguistic influence in language learning. Cambridge university Press.

Oleksy, W. (ed) (1989). Contrastive Pragmatics . Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Slobin, D. I. From 'thought and language' to 'thinking for speaking' In 1996 J. J. Gumperz and S. C. Levinson, eds. (1996). Rethinking Linguistic Relativity Studies in the Social and Cultural Foundations of Language, 1. pp. 70 96, Cambridge University Press.

Weinreich, U. (1953/1968). Languages in Contact. The Hague: Mouton.

Wierzbicka, A. 1991. Cross-cultural Pragmatics: The Semantics of Human Interaction. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter.

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