Contrastive Analysis and error analysis in foreign language learning

By Joanna Nifli (MA TEFL/CELTA certified EFL instructor)

    The main source of evidence in studying second language learning is learner language itself and in particular learner errors. Our understanding of learner errors, i.e. why they occur and whether there are any similar patterns among speakers of the same L1 will depend to a great extent on the theory of learning we adopt as language researchers/teachers.

The shift from behaviourist to mentalist perspective on language learning

    With regard to L2 acquisition, a lot of research has been focusing on the role of input and interaction and to what extent these can promote language learning. Behaviourists such as Skinner view language as determined ‘environmentally’ by the stimuli and reinforcement learners receive during discourse.

    Chomsky’s 1959 critique of Skinner’s behaviourist approach shifted the focus of attention onto the mental processes involved in language learning. This led to a new perspective on error as evidence of the language learning process. The mentalist view stresses the importance of the learners’ ‘black box’ and their innate ability to pick up any language through minimal exposure to input. The interactionist view on language acquisition is somewhere in between the two previous viewpoints and acknowledges the importance of both input and internal language processing in language learning. The belief here is that learners develop their interlanguage through a combination of complex interactions and their internal mechanisms that allow them to communicate with others and decipher meaning out of the input they receive.

    Contrastive analysis is “a set of procedures for comparing and contrasting the linguistic systems of two languages in order to identify their structural similarities and differences” (Ellis 1994:698). According to the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis, L2 errors are the result of differences between the learners’ L1 and L2. The strong form of the hypothesis claims that these differences can be used to predict the majority of errors that will occur in second language learning whereas the weak form argues that these differences can only help us track down some of the errors that will occur (ibid.).

    So how plausible is the contrastive analysis hypothesis and how can we use its findings to facilitate foreign language learning? To describe the contrasts between languages and how they can lead to interlanguage errors, Ellis (1994:710) focuses on the notion of “language transfer”. For Odlin (1989:27), “transfer is the influence resulting from similarities and differences between the target language and any other language that has been previously (and perhaps imperfectly) acquired.

    When examining learner discourse and its role in language acquisition we first of all need to consider its similarities and differences with native speaker talk and whether there are any modifications. Researchers divide this foreigner talk into two types: ungrammatical and grammatical. The first one (i.e. the simplification of speech by deleting certain key grammatical structures when talking to foreigners) is likely to be rejected by some learners as it may sound pragmatically inappropriate to them. The grammatical one is the most common one, where input is simplified or delivered at a slower pace, using shorter sentences and having as a primary focus the negotiation of meaning.

    To promote language learning in our EFL classrooms it is important to examine to what degree such modifications of speech assist in interlanguage development. For Stephen Krashen and his input hypothesis, learners need to be exposed to input (i.e. lexis and grammatical structures) that are ‘input +1’, i.e. one step more advanced than the learners’ knowledge and linguistic development. Michael Long’s interaction hypothesis further emphasizes the importance of comprehensible input but claims that it is most effective through the negotiation of meaning.

    Having these theories in mind, we can therefore come up with a plan to help our learners get the most out of their interactions and of the input we expose them to. Below you will find some key points to consider with regard to learner discourse and some tips on how to promote interlanguage development during our EFL lessons.

    By loading the input we give to our learners with the target forms we want them to notice, we facilitate the learning process and give them the necessary clues they need in order to process and eventually absorb the new knowledge. Variety and authenticity in tasks is also important here as learners have the opportunity to reproduce the grammatical patterns in many different scenarios and for different communicative purposes.

    For Harmer(2001), ‘successful language teaching’ should be judged according to the ‘balance of the activities our students are involved in’. Since in most EFL classrooms learners have limited opportunities to practice the language outside the classroom, Harmer considers ‘genuine communicative tasks’ as an important part of the lesson. We therefore need to come up with activities that will increase student talking time (STT) and will give our learners the opportunity to utilize their knowledge and find ways to interact, express themselves in a creative way and get their message across in the target language.

    In many cases our EFL learners have limited exposure to the TL outside the classroom and therefore they do not have many opportunities to practise the language. In order to foster their language development we must create the appropriate environment to help them do this during the lesson. We must help them develop communicative skills that will eventually promote language acquisition. By encouraging interaction among the students through collaborative writing or speaking tasks, STT (student talking time) is increased and our learners gradually begin to develop language fluency and learn from one another.

    We must give our students the freedom to interact in the TL, to try to communicate successfully and appropriately (not necessarily accurately), to get their message across without the fear of errors. Our learners’ interlanguage will constantly evolve through creative mistakes. It’s not just the drilling and the exercises that will boost their linguistic development but the interaction, the constant effort to turn their passive vocabulary into active.


Bygate, M., Skehan, P. & Swain, M. (2001). Researching Pedagogic Task: Second Language Learning, Teaching and Testing. Harlow: Pearson Education

Ellis, R. (1994). A theory of instructed second language acquisition. In N. Ellis (Ed.), Implicit and explicit learning of languages. Academic Press.

Ellis, R. (2001). Non-reciprocal task, comprehension and second language acquisition. In M. Bygate, P. Skehan & M. Swain (Eds.) Researching Pedagogic Tasks: Second Language Learning, Teaching and Testing (pp. 49-74). Harlow: Longman

Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford: OUP
Gass, S. M., & Madden, C. (1985). Input in Second Language Acquisition. London: Newbury House

Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.

Odlin, T. (1989). Language Transfer Cross-Linguistic Influence in Language Learning. Cambridge Cambridge University Press.

Swain, M. (1995). Three functions of output in second language learning. In G. Cook& B. Seidlhofer (Eds.), Principle and Practice in Applied Linguistics. Oxford: OUP.

Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press

Published by Joanna Nifli

ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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