Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis

The contrastive analysis hypothesis claimed that the difficulty of second language acquisition could be predicted by the degree of difference between the learners first and second language. In chapter nine Brown points out many of the problems with this hypothesis which lead linguists to abandon it. One of the problems with the hypothesis is that it could not predict many of the errors that learners make, and it also predicted interference problems where none would surface.

The most interesting criticism of the contrastive analysis hypothesis for me was the ‘subtle differences” version of the contrastive analysis hypothesis proposed by Oller and Ziachosseiny (Brown p253). They claimed that more interference between the L1 and target language may occur not when there is a large difference between a structure in the two languages but when learners are required to make more subtle distinctions between the languages. In my own experience learning French and Arabic I have found this to be the case. French and English share a lot of vocabulary so there are a lot of cognates as well as false cognates which can cause confusion for learners. Cognates can help in comprehension, but they can cause some problems in production. For example, when I speak French sometimes I may know a French word, but hesitate to use it because I am not sure whether it is the correct French word or whether it is an English word. False cognates can also cause some problems. For example, one mistake that beginning French students often make is to use the French word ‘personnage” to mean ‘person’, but in French this word means ‘character’ as in a character from a story. In Arabic I do not find problems such as these because there are very few cognates between English and Arabic.

Another interesting criticism of the contrastive analysis hypothesis is the case of interlingual errors. These are the types of errors whose source comes from within the target language. For example, overgeneralizing a rule such as the plural ‘s’ and saying ‘mens’ instead of ‘men’. What is interesting to me about this type of error is that it shows how the regularity of the target language is used by the learner. This will lead to some errors, but overall the regularity of the target language will facilitate learning. Most of the time applying the rule of adding an “s’ to form the plural will work. In my experience learning Arabic I have found regular aspects of the language which are quite different than English, but nevertheless make certain aspects of the language easier to learn. For example, Arabic is a language which relies on roots of three or four consonants. These roots have general meanings, and particular words are formed by adding patterns of vowels and certain consonants. The patterns themselves are derivational so also have a meaning. An example of this would be the root “k,t,b” which carries the meaning “write”. Words derived from this root are “kaatib” writer, “maktab” office, “maktaba” library, “kataba” to write. There are several other words with the same root. This pattern of deriving words from cononant roots is very different from English, but is one aspect of the language which makes vocabulary acquisition much easier. It also allows a student to guess the meaning of an unknown word.

While French vocabulary is more similar to English because of the many cognates, sometimes it is more difficult to learn because of the “subtle differences”. Arabic vocabulary shares few cognates with English but the root system of the Arabic language facilitates vocabulary learning even though this type of system does not exist in English.

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