What is contrastive analysis hypothesis in SLA? What are its major limitations?

Contrastive analysis is a systematic study of comparison between two languages: the native language (L1) and the target language (L2). Researchers from the 1940s to the 1960s conducted contrastive analyses, systematically comparing two languages. They were motivated by the prospect of being able to identify points of similarity and difference between L1 and L2. In this connection, the researchers made some assumptions. In accordance with their assumptions, the researchers came into a decision that the main difficulties in learning a new language/ target language (TL) are caused by the interference of the native language(NL). This interference is called the L1 interference. Contrastive analysis(CA) can predict these difficulties which a learner faces in learning the TL. In his classic work Linguistics Across Cultures, Robert Lado attributes our difficulties and errors in learning TL or a foreign language to the interference of our native language(NL) or mother language (L1).

Whereever the structure of the target language(TL) differs from that of the native language (NL), the learner faces both difficulty in learning and error in performance. Successful learning and appreciable command over the target language is absolutely dependent on learning to overcome these difficulties. Where the structures of the two languages are identical, the learner does not face any substantial difficulty. Difficulty arises where there are structural differences between TL and NL. Teaching needs to be directed at the points of structural dissimilarities. Speaking in mathematical term, difficulty is proportionate to difference between languages. But this difficulty can be lessened to a substantial extent by carrying out a comparative study between the target language (TL) and the native (NL) or L1 and L2. This comparative study between TL and NL is dubbed as Contrast Analysis(C.A) C.A is of immense worth in predicting the difficulties of the learner. This determines what the learners have to learn and what the teacher has to teach. The teaching materials of L2 can also make use of CA to reduce the effects of interference. The results of CA are therefore, built into the fabric of language teaching materials, syllabuses, tests and research. Different text books will have to be produced for each language group. So, it is obviously evident that especially from the pedagogic point of view, Contrastive Analysis bears concrete weight in language learning and teaching.

According to Charles Fries, comparing a scientific description of L2 with a parallel description of L1 is the most efficient material in SLA. From the hypothetical point view, individuals or learners tend to transfer the forms and meanings and the distribution of forms and meanings of their native language and culture to the foreign language and culture- both productively and receptively.

All difficulties or differences in SLA or in learning the target language(TL) are not equal. There is a degree of difficulties as well as degree of easiness. Where two languages are similar positive transfer occurs and where they are different, negative transfer, or interference is resulted. Eminent linguists Stockwell, Bowen and Marlin developed a hierarchy of difficulties on the basis of this hypothesis. This is known as the Hierarchy of Difficulties.

Contrastive Analysis has two aspects-psychological and linguistic. The psychological aspect is based upon the behaviourist theory. Behaviourist theory/ behaviourism is a theory of psychology which states that human and animal behaviour can and should be studied in psychological process only. And the linguistic aspect is based upon structuralist linguistics. It is an approach to linguistics which stresses the importance of language as a system and which investigates the place those linguistic units such as sounds, words, and sentences have within this system.

The association of CAH with behaviourism gave it academic legitimacy. The behaviourists hold that language acquisition was a product of habit formation. Habits were constructed through the repeated association between some stimulus and some response. Second language learning was viewed as a process of overcoming the habit of L1 in order to acquire new habits of L2. But ironically, behaviourism led the CAH to its downfall. With Chomsky’s attack on the behaviourist view of language acquisition in his classic review of Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour, the behaviourist view fell into disorder.

The CAH exists in two forms: strong version and weak version. Wardaugh proposed a distinction between a strong version and a weak version of the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis(CAH). The strong version of CAH claims that all L2 errors can be predicted by identifying the differences between L1 and L2. The strong version of CAH is clearly based upon a priori contrastive analysis of the L1 and L2. The predictions are, however not always borne out. On the contrary, the weak version of the CAH is based upon on a posterior investigation. This is, by nature diagnostic. It is utilized in identifying which errors are the results of interference. Researchers start with learner’s errors and explain them by pointing to the similarities and differences between the two languages. It possesses a “posteriori”, explanatory power. As the weak version of CAH can be used to identify errors, CA needs to walk hand in hand with error analysis(EA). First actual errors must be identified by analyzing a corpus/ discourse of L1. Then a contrastive analysis can be used to establish which error in the corpus can be put down to find the difficulties between L1 and L2.

There are some limitations in Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis. As behaviourism as a theory fails, Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis also fails. It ceases to exist. CA is not effective in all responses. CA is directly originated from behaviourism/ stimulus response theory. Contrastive analysis suffers from under prediction and over prediction. It cannot find out the errors which are committed by the learners due to overgeneralization. CA is inadequate to predict the interference problems of a language learner. No uniformity is evident in Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis. CA is unable to account for the failures or the success of the learners. CA does not analyze the language acquisition process in all the ways. It only analyzes with linguistic approach. Thus Contrastive Analysis is a partial approach. It is not acceptable as it cannot give a total idea of language acquisition. It does not say anything about psychological factors.