Contrastive Linguistics

Topics: Linguistics, Language acquisition, Second language acquisition Pages: 15 (4609 words) Published: July 22, 2013
Contrastive Linguistics: Theories and Methods Volker Gast 1 Introduction: The subject matter of contrastive linguistics

Narrowly defined, contrastive linguistics can be regarded as a branch of comparative linguistics that is concerned with pairs of languages which are ‘socio-culturally linked’. Two languages can be said to be socio-culturally linked when (i) they are used by a considerable number of bi- or multilingual speakers, and/or (ii) a substantial amount of ‘linguistic output’ (text, discourse) is translated from one language into the other. According to this definition, contrastive linguistics deals with pairs of languages such as Spanish and Basque, but not with Latin and (the Australian language) Dyirbal, as there is no socio-cultural link between these languages. More broadly defined, the term ‘contrastive linguistics’ is also sometimes used for comparative studies of (small) groups (rather than just pairs) of languages, and does not require a socio-cultural link between the languages investigated. On this view, contrastive linguistics is a special case of linguistic typology and is distinguished from other types of typological approaches by a small sample size and a high degree of granularity. Accordingly, any pair or group of languages (even Latin and Dyirbal) can be subject to a contrastive analysis. This article is based on the (intermediate) view that contrastive linguistics invariably requires a socio-cultural link between the languages investigated, but that it is not restricted to pairwise language comparison. Even though it is not a branch of applied linguistics, contrastive linguistics thus aims to arrive at results that carry the potential of being used for practical purposes, e.g. in foreign language teaching and translation. As it provides the descriptive basis for such applications, its research programme can also be summarized as ‘comparison with a purpose’ (E. König). The ‘objective of applicability’ is also reflected in the fact that contrastive studies focus on the differences, rather than the similarities, between the languages compared. As a first approximation, the method of contrastive linguistics can be represented as in Diagram 1 (for ease of representation, the following discussion will concentrate on pairwise comparison). ‘A(Ln)’ stands for the analysis of a language Ln and ‘Ac(L1 ↔ L2)’ for the contrastive analysis of two languages L1 and L2.

analysis of single languages → contrastive analysis → A(L1) sociocultural link

application foreign language teaching translation ...


L1 L2


Diagram 1: Contrastive linguistics between language-particular analysis and application

The schema given in Diagram 1 will be refined below. In particular, the role of ‘bilingual linguistic output’ will be integrated into the picture. This output not only provides the empirical basis for contrastive studies but also functions as a conceptual link between the linguistic systems investigated, as it can be used to establish comparability between categories from different languages. After providing a brief historical overview of contrastive linguistics in Section 2, Section 3 will address some fundamental methodological issues, in particular the question of crosslinguistic comparability. In Sections 4 and 5, two major types of comparison will be illustrated, i.e. comparison of purely formal categories (consonants) and comparison of linguistic categories that carry meaning or function (tense). Section 6 will deal with generalizations across functional domains (Wh-question formation and relativization). Section 7 will conclude with some remarks on the empirical basis of contrastive linguistics (specialized corpora). 2 Historical remarks

The programme of contrastive linguistics was instigated by Charles Carpenter Fries from the University of Michigan in the 1940s. Fries (1945: 9) contended that “[t]he most effective materials [in foreign language teaching] are those that are based...

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