Contrasting Students' Native Language to the Second Language

The contrastive analysis hypothesis focuses on the differences between an L1 and L2 and attributes the learning difficulties of the L2 to these differences (Ortega, 2009). These differences are also used to predict difficulties learners will have but this is not always found to be true as Fred Eckman’s markedness differential hypothesis illustrates (Ortega, 2009). A difference in a target structure may not be a problem for one direction of language learning, say French to English, due to French having a marked form and English has an easier, unmarked form. However, for an English speaker learning French, the same construction can present difficulties because English does not have the marked form which is more complex and rare (Ortega, 2009). This is one flaw of contrastive analysis, that it does not take markedness into account. Furthermore, differences may result in no language difficulties at all.

Hyltenstam found in a study of negation of 160 learners that there were general patterns in the acquisition of negation despite their different L1 backgrounds (Ortega, 2009). This has important implications that contradict the contrastive analysis hypothesis. One implication is that researchers should be investigating the interlanguage instead of random unconnected L1-L2 analyses. If the contrastive analysis hypothesis were reliable, why would learners struggle with something in the L2 that is similar in their L1? An example of this inconsistency was in a study conducted by Ravem published in 1968 that detailed how L1 Norwegian speakers who share post-verbal negation patterns with English, initially produced pre-verbal negation “I not like that” (Ortega, 2009). Furthermore, contrastive analysis does not account for rate of development. All learners will not show the same rates of development; some L1 groups could take longer to acquire a certain concept, include another sub-stage, or encounter more learning obstacles than different L1 groups (Ortega, 2009). For example, the Ravem example of negation stated above shows that the Norwegian speakers do not automatically apply their L1 pattern to the L2 which would transfer positively. Nonetheless, it will take them less time to acquire this structure compared to learners whose L1 structure contrasts with the L2 rules (Ortega, 2009).

Terence Odlin defined interlingual identification as the judgment that an L1 and L2 structure are similar (Ortega, 2009). These identifications are influenced by at least the three following factors: “a) the nature of the specific L2 phenomenon and universal forces that shape its natural development; b) learner's perceived distance between L1-2 and their intuitions of what is transferable or not; and c) their relative proficiency level” (Ortega, 2009). The perceived distance can be seen in Kellerman’s 1979 study of transferability where the judgment of transferability is somewhat influenced by other things rather than just comparing the two languages (Ortega, 2009). In this study proficiency played a role in the judgment of transferability where lower level students positively transferred a similar structure from their L1 to the L2, the use of the middle voice and ergative verb use as in “the cup broke” (Ortega, 2009). More advanced learners perceive this form as too similar to their L1 and they went “beyond success” (Ortega, 2009).


All of these studies contribute to a language teacher’s approach in different ways. First of all, one must not solely focus on L1 and L2 comparisons. The interlanguage system holds useful information that most learners will go through but we need to be aware of the development rates that can stem from L1 backgrounds. When marked forms are new for students, teachers should account for extra time and attention to be spent on these constructions. Although background knowledge of students L1 can be useful it must be supported with more knowledge of students' perceptions of transferability, interlanguage development patterns, and marked forms.