The contrastive hypothesis

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The contrastive hypothesis, instigated by Charles C. Fries and developed further by Robert Lado (1957), holds “[...] that we can predict and describe the patterns that will cause difficulty in learning [a second language], and those that will not cause difficulty, by comparing systematically the language and culture to be learned with the native language and culture of the student.” (Lado 1957, preface). Similarities between the first and second language are supposed to facilitate the process of second language acquisition. By contrast, differences are believed to cause learning difficulties and to represent the main source of errors. Hence, the more a foreign language differs from a learner’s mother tongue, the harder its acquisition is predicted to be.


The theory

The contrastive hypothesis is typically associated with two branches of linguistics. The first branch psycholinguistics is concerned with the psychological and neurobiological factors that enable humans to acquire, comprehend and produce language. The second branch contrastive linguistics is a branch of comparative linguistics which seeks to describe the similarities and differences between pairs of languages that are socio-culturally linked (cf. Gast forthcoming).
Charles Carpenter Fries was the first to instigate contrastive research in the 1940s. In 1957, the American linguist Robert Lado developed his idea further and formulated the results in what came to be known as the “Contrastive Hypothesis.” Its main assumption states that “[...] individuals tend to transfer the forms and meanings as well as the distribution of forms and meanings of their native language and culture to the foreign language and culture – both productively when attempting to speak the language and to act in the culture, and receptively when attempting to grasp and understand the language and the culture as practised by natives (Lado 1957, 2). Hence, the contrastive hypothesis is based on a behaviourist conception of language acquisition, insofar as it is based on the assumption that foreign language learners constantly resort to the “habits” they acquired in the process of first language acquisition: “The basic problems [when learning a second language] arise not out of any essential difficulty in the features of the new language themselves but primarily out of the special 'set' created by the first language habits.” (Charles C. Fries in: Lado 1957, foreword)

König and Gast (2008, 1) summarise the main assumptions of the contrastive hypothesis as follows:

  • “First language acquisition and foreign language learning differ fundamentally, especially in those cases where the foreign language is learnt later than a mother tongue and on the basis of the full mastery of that mother tongue.”
  • “Every language has its own specific structure. Similarities between the two languages will cause no difficulties (positive transfer), but differences will, due to ‘negative transfer' (or ‘interference’). The student’s learning task can therefore roughly be defined as the sum of the differences between the two languages.“
  • “A systematic comparison between mother tongue and foreign language to be learnt will reveal both similarities and contrasts.”
  • “On the basis of such a comparison it will be possible to predict or even rank learning difficulties and to develop strategies (teaching materials, teaching techniques, etc.) for making foreign language teaching more efficient.”

On the basis of his theory, Lado suggests a completely new task for teachers to fulfil in the preparation of their lessons:

“The most important new thing in the preparation of teaching materials is the comparison of native and foreign language and culture in order to find the hurdles that really have to be surmounted in the teaching. [...] In practice a teacher may be called upon to apply [h]is knowledge under various circumstances. He may be asked to evaluate materials before they are adopted for use. He may be asked to prepare new materials. He may have to supplement the textbook assigned to his class. And he will at all times need to diagnose accurately the difficulties his pupils have in learning each pattern.” (Lado 1957, 2/3)

According to the linguist Ronald Wardhaugh, the contrastive hypothesis exists in a strong and a weak form, “the strong one arising from evidence from the availability of some kind of metatheory of contrastive analysis and the weak from evidence from language interference.” (Wardhaugh 1970, 123) In other words, the strong version reflects the idea that it is possible to contrast the system of one language with the system of a second language in order to predict learning difficulties and construct teaching materials that help learn that language. In contrast, the weak version “[...] requires of the linguist only that he use the best linguistic knowledge available to him in order to account for observed difficulties in second language learning. It does not require what the strong version requires, the prediction of those difficulties and, conversely, of those learning points which do not create any difficulties at all. The weak version leads to an approach which makes fewer demands of contrastive theory than does the strong version.” (Wardhaugh 1970, 126) However, both the strong and the weak version have been severely criticized (cf. Response and criticism).

Response and criticism

The contrastive hypothesis has soon faced strong criticism among linguists because it was viewed as being too simple and undifferentiated in many respects. First of all, there was no distinction between various types of foreign language learning (e.g. natural vs. mediated, sequential vs. simultaneous, second vs. third language, etc.). Furthermore, it neglected the age of the learner and the fact that we may approach the linguistic competence of a native speaker if one starts to learn a language early enough or is exposed to it very frequently. Wienold (1973) added to this that the relations between mother tongue and language to be learnt are only one of many factors entering into the learning process. Another hypothesis argues that the major learning problem might simply be ignorance rather than interference. In that sense Newmark and Reibel (1986, 159f) pointed out:

“A person knows how to speak one language, say his native one. Now he tries to speak another one; but in his early stages of learning the new one, there are many things he has not yet learned to do; […] But he is induced to perform […] in that new one by an external teacher or by his internal desire to say something. What can he do other than use what he already knows to make up for what he does not know? […] The problem of ‘interference’ viewed thus reduces to the problem of ignorance, and the solution to the problem is simply more and better training in the target language, […].”

The assumptions made by Lado were thus, in many ways, too strong, which led many linguists to claim that the contrastive hypothesis has failed: “Languages do not differ from each other without limit in unpredictable ways, statements to the contrary notwithstanding. All natural languages have a great deal in common so that anyone who has learned one language already knows a great deal about any other language he must learn. Not only does he know a great deal about that other language even before he begins to learn it, but the deep structures of both languages are very much alike, so that the actual differences between the two languages are really quite superficial. However, to learn a second language – and this is the important point – one must learn the precise way in which that second language relates the deep structures to its surface structures and their phonetic representations. Since this way is unique for each language, contrastive analysis can be of little or no help at all in the learning task because the rules to be internalized are, of course, unique.” (Wardhaugh 1970, 127)

Empirical studies have shown that foreign language learners made numerous mistakes that were not at all predicted by contrastive studies. On the other hand, mistakes that were predicted were hardly ever made by learners. This applies, in particular, to grammar, but also – to a lesser extent – to phonetics and phonology. Furthermore, only about 50% of all mistakes are due to interference, which shows that there is a variety of factors which are responsible for learning difficulties.

Apart from the points mentioned, the contrastive hypothesis lacks a foundation in learning psychology as well as an empirical basis. A systematic comparison of certain pairs of language had not been realised until the 1970s. This is one of the major points of criticism pointed out by König & Gast (2007): instead of publishing detailed and comprehensive comparative surveys, linguists mostly made isolated observations about differences between pairs of languages. However, a number of publications from the 1970s and 1980s led to a revival of contrastive linguistics, with John Hawkins’ (1986) monograph A comparative typology of English and German – Unifying the contrasts being the most important publication.

Given that contrastive linguistics turned out to be less useful for specific purposes than was expected, it is no longer considered a branch of applied linguistics, but as one type of comparative linguistics. Today, most contemporary studies pursue a basically linguistic interest and compare only two languages – mainly languages that are “socio-culturally linked” (Gast forthcoming), like Germanic and Romance ones – with respect to a wide variety of properties. Notwithstanding the criticism, contrastive linguistics may nevertheless have useful implications for a wide range of areas in linguistics, e.g. for translation theory, the study of bilingualism or, to a certain extent, even for its original field foreign language teaching.

This article is based on a term paper by Elisa Rudolph, Contrastive Linguistics Course (Summer 2009) Prof. Volker Gast Department of English and American Studies, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena


References and recommended reading

  • Gast, Volker (forthcoming). „Contrastive Analysis. Theories and Methods.” In: Kortmann, B. & J. Kabatek (eds.), In Wörterbücher der Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft. Theories and Methods of Linguistics. Berlin: Mouton.
  • Hawkins, John (1986). A comparative typology of English and German. Unifying the contrasts. London: Croom Helm.
  • Kortmann, Bernd (2005). English Linguistics: Essentials. Berlin: Cornelsen. 119-23.
  • König, Ekkehard and Volker Gast (2008). Understanding English-German Contrasts. 2nd edition (revised). Berlin: Erich Schmidt.
  • König, Ekkehard (1971). Adjectival constructions in English and German. Heidelberg: Groos.
  • Lado, Robert (1957). Linguistics across cultures: Applied linguistics for language teachers. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Newmark, Leonard / David Reibel (1986). "Necessity and sufficiency in language learning." In International Review of Applied Linguistics 6(2) 145-64.
  • Rohdenburg, Günter (1974). Sekundäre Subjektivierungen im Englischen und Deutschen: Vergleichende Untersuchungen zur Verb- und Adjektivsyntax. Bielefeld: Cornelsen-Velhaben Klasing.
  • Stern, H.H. (1991). Fundamental concepts of language teaching. Oxford: Ordford Univ. Press. 395-97.
  • Wardhaugh, Ronald (1970). “The Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis.” In TESOL Quaterly 4(2) 123-130.
Full text available at: (restricted access: available in most university networks)
  • Wienold, Götz (1973). Die Erlernbarkeit der Sprachen. München: Kösel.


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