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Contrastive analysis is the study and comparison of two languages. For example, this can be comparing English with Latin or Basque with Iroquois. This is done by looking at the structural similarities and differences of the studied languages. There are two central aims to contrastive analysis; the first is to establish the inter-relationships of languages in order to create a linguistic family tree. The second aim is to aid second language acquisition.
The idea of contrastive analysis grew out of observing students learning a second language. Each student or group of students tended to repeat the same linguistic mistakes as previous groups. This turned into an assumption that the mistakes were caused by the student’s first language interfering with the second. This interference happened because the student applied the first language’s rules to the second language, much in the same way children apply the rules of regular words to irregular ones.
Serious studies into contrastive analysis began with Robert Lado’s 1957 book, “Linguistics Across Culture.” Its central tenets and other observations on second language acquisition became increasingly influential in the 1960s and 70s. It built upon ideas set out in linguistic relativity, also known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which believed that language structures affect cognitive thinking. This led to the automatic transferring of one language’s rules to another.
The ideas of contrastive analysis regarding second language acquisition are considered simplistic. They assume all students studying one language, who speak the same mother tongue, will make the same mistakes as one another. It does not factor in the possibility of individual differences. It also does not help students avoid systematic mistakes. The only help for such students is lists of common mistakes.
Contrastive analysis fails to distinguish between the written rules of formal language and the unwritten rules of informal language. It also fails to take into account differences between dialects. Most contrastive studies take into account basic building blocks of languages such as phonics and vocabulary and also the structural natures of many languages including how they form sentences and change word forms.
Studies comparing and contrasting different languages still have a role to play in language formation and history. The production of language family trees and genealogies are useful for explaining how different languages were formed and where they came from. It is also used to connect different languages together.
Some languages such as the Slavic, Germanic and Romance languages have obvious connections with one another and hark back to general proto-languages. The theory is that each language started as a dialect and became more distinct over time. Some languages are more isolated and harder to explain like Basque and Hungarian. Others, like Japanese, cause controversy because some think Japanese is unique, while others draw comparisons with Korean and a plethora of related languages such as Okinawan, Yaeyama and Yonaguni.