SLA Part 1: Contrastive Analysis

This is Question 2 of the 5 that I think teacher trainers should answer. Here, 1 I look at Contrastive Analysis. I take the terms “learning an L2” and “SLA” to refer to the same thing.

Contrastive Analysis concentrated on the role of the “native language”, and suggested that language transfer was the key to explaining SLA.  The Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis (CAH) was founded on

  • structural linguistics, which was a corpus-based descriptive approach, providing detailed linguistic descriptions of a particular language, and
  • behavioural psychology, which held that learning was establishing a set of habits.

Lado (1957), following the behaviourist argument, assumed that learning a language was like learning anything else, and that, in line with this general learning theory,  learning task A will affect the subsequent learning of task B.  Consequently, SLA is crucially affected by learning of the L1. If acquisition of the L1 involved the formation of a set of habits, then the same process must also be involved in SLA, with the difference that some of the habits appropriate to the L2 will already have been acquired, while other habits will need to be modified, and still others will have to be learned from scratch. Lado went on to suggest that there were two types of language transfer: positive transfer (facilitation) and negative transfer (interference).  There were, in turn, two types of interference: retroactive, where learning acts back on previously learned matter (language loss), and proactive inhibition, where a series of responses already learned tend to appear in situations where a new series of responses is needed.

To summarise, the CAH claimed that language learning is habit formation and SLA involves establishing a new set of habits.  By considering the main differences between L1 and L2, one can anticipate the errors learners will make when learning an L2: errors indicate differences and these differences have to be learned.


The CAH was immediately challenged by evidence from studies, which showed that errors occurred when not predicted by contrastive analysis, and did not occur when predicted.  Initial studies led to subsequent work, and lots more counterevidence. For example, Zobl (1980) found that while English-speaking learners of French negatively transferred English postverbal pronoun placement to produce ungrammatical utterances such as  Le chien a mangé les (Le chien les a mangés), French-speaking learners of English did not make such errors, even though both languages have preverbal object pronouns. This is a case of a one-way learning difficulty.  Furthermore, not all areas of similarity between an L1 and an L2 lead to positive transfer.  Odlin (1989), for example, reported that although Spanish has a copula verb similar to English be in sentences like That’s very simple, or The picture’s very dark, Spanish-speaking learners of L2 English usually omit the copula in early stages of acquisition, saying That very simple, and The picture very dark.

More systematic classification of learners’ errors suggested that only a small percentage of them could be attributed to contrasting properties between L1 and L2.  Lococo (1975) for example found that in the corpus she examined, only 25% of errors resulted from L1/L2 contrast, and Dulay and Burt’s study (1975) claimed that only 5% of errors were thus accounted for. The Dulay and Burt study was subsequently seriously questioned (see Ellis, 1993: 45), but later morheme studies did much to resore the credibility of the underlying argument.


Contrastive analysis has a lot to recommend it.  As a theory of SLA, the following points can be made about the CAH:

  • It is a coherent and cohesive consequence of a general theory of learning.
  • It embraces a well-developed theory of languages. Just as learning is seen in behaviourist terms, so languages are seen from a well-defined structuralist viewpoint: languages are studied in the true Baconian, “botanist” tradition, and it is the careful description and analysis of their differences which is the researcher’s main concern.
  • It occupies a limited domain, dealing almost exclusively with the phenomenon of transfer of properties of the L1 grammar into the L2 grammar.
  • It is a testable hypothesis: empirical evidence can support or challenge it and research studies can be replicated. The research methods can be scrutinised and improved.
  • It is extremely economical in its use of key terms and constructs.

It may also be noted that there are crystal-clear pedagogical implications. Contrastive Analysis indicates what particular habits have to be learned, and pedagogical practice – the audio-lingual method (speech is primary, and is learned through drills and practice) – fits perfectly with the theory of SLA.  One would venture to say that this was no coincidence, that the agenda of the early SLA researchers was clearly focused on pedagogical concerns.

The fundamental difficulty of the theory lies in its underlying behaviouristic theory of learning, according to which all learning is repetition, a question of habit-formation.  Such a view of learning adopts an empiricist / positivist epistemology which denies the validity of the mind as a construct, and the possibility of causal explanations. Following the disasterous trajectory of the logical positivists in the 1930s, behaviourism and positivism were almost universally rejected, although, more recently, connectionist and emergetist approaches to learning seem to herald a return to behaviourism. Of course,  a sleight of hand is required in order to allow for the use of theoretical constructs and for the inference to a causal explanation of L2 learning.

As we’ll see, the shift away from behaviourism meant saying farewell to a very comfortable state of affairs in ELT. Before the shift, learning a second language was explained in terms of a general learning theory, and there was no doubt as to the practical applications of that theory: you learn the L2 in the same way as you learned the L1, and in the same way as you learn anything else, by forming stimulus-response behaviour patterns.

It is instructive to see what happened to the CAH.  While the strong claims of the CAH have been refuted by research findings, there has rarely been any doubt that the L1 does indeed affect SLA.  Later studies concentrated on when and how the L1 influenced SLA.

Regarding “When”, Wode (1978) suggested that it is the similarities, not the differences, between L1 and L2 which cause the biggest problems, and Zobl (1982) proposed that “markedness” constrains L1 transfer.  Zobl argued that linguistically unmarked L1 features will transfer, but linguistically marked features will not, where markedness is measured in terms of infrequency or departure from something basic or typical in a language.

Regarding “How”, Zobl identified two patterns of L1 influence on SLA: (a) the pace at which a developmental stage is traversed (where the L1 can inhibit or accelerate the process), and (b) the number of developmental structures in a stage.  Larsen-Freeman and Long, in their discussion of markedness conclude:

When L1 transfer occurs, it generally does so in harmony with developmental processes, modifying learners’ encounters with interlanguage sequences rather than altering them in fundamental ways. (Larsen-Freeman and Long, 1991: 106)

Today, L1 transfer can be seen as playing an important part in all of the most interesting current views of SLA, including Nick Ellis’ and Mike Long’s agreement that one of the biggest tasks facing adult L2 learners is that of “re-setting the dial”. We’ll come to that.

References can be found by clicking on the “Bibliography for Theory Construction in SLA” menu in the Header.


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