The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Contrastive Analysis

Question:

Submitted by Syvia, Brazil

Is contrastive analysis still relevant in language teaching?

Dr. Richards responds:

The contrastive analysis hypothesis (CA), states that where the first language and the target language are similar, learners will generally acquire structures with ease, and where they are different, learners will have difficulty. CA was based on the related theory of language transfer: difficulty in second language learning results from transfer of features of the first language to the second language. Transfer (also known as interference) was considered the main explanation for learners’ errors. Teachers were encouraged to spend time on features of English that were most likely to be affected by first-language transfer. Today, transfer is considered only one of many possible causes of learners’ errors. However, in the 1960s the contrastive analysis hypothesis was criticized, as research began to reveal that second language learners use simple structures ‘that are very similar across learners from a variety of backgrounds, even if their respective first languages are different from each other and different from the target languages’ (Lightbown and Spada, 2006.) My early work on error analysis supported this view (Richards, 1974). Behaviourism as an explanation for language learning was subsequently rejected by advocates of more cognitive theories of language and of language learning that appeared in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the first people to develop a cognitive perspective on language was the prominent American linguist Noam Chomsky. His critique of Skinner’s views (Chomsky, 1959) was extremely influential and introduced the view that language learning should be seen not simply as something that comes from outside but is determined by internal processes of the mind, i.e. by cognitive processes.