C is for Contrastive analysis

27 01 2013

Charles-BridgeAn article in the latest Applied Linguistics (Scheffler 2012) makes a robust defence of some discredited classroom practices, including the use of translation. While lamenting the lack of research into the effectiveness of translation, Scheffler reports a couple of studies that suggest that learners exposed to cross-linguistic comparison (also called contrastive metalinguistic input) out-perform those who have had grammar presented to them solely in the target language. The author concludes that ‘teachers who resisted the ban on [translation] in the classroom may have known what they were doing’ (p. 606).  In this wise, Scheffler echoes the thrust of Guy Cook’s (2010) book, discussed in this blog here.

Interestingly, neither Scheffler nor Cook reference the work of the ‘Prague School’ of linguistics, and especially of its founder, Vilém Mathesius, whose application of cross-linguistic comparison to the teaching of foreign languages seems to have been a methodological staple in (then) Czechoslovakia until at least the late 1960s.

PragueatnightJust a bit of background: the Prague School flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, and was distinguished by at least three major breaks with tradition:

1. In contrast to the then predominant preoccupation with historical linguistics (and what the past might tell us about ‘correct’ language use), Prague School linguists were more concerned with language as it is currently used now, hence had a less prescriptive, more relaxed approach to acceptable language use (and one which perhaps foreshadowed the development of corpus linguistics);

2. In viewing language as an integrated, interdependent system, in which all its elements stand in some relationship with one another, such that no single element can be viewed in isolation, the Prague School was able to show how changes in one element might affect changes across the system, thereby modelling systematic language change and variability, and, incidentally, helping to establish linguistics as a discipline in its own right, rather than as a branch of psychology or philosophy; and

3. (perhaps most importantly), Prague School linguists shifted the prevailing focus on linguistic structures to a focus on the communicative functions of language, thereby paving the way for the kind of functional linguistics associated with Michael Halliday, and, by extension, communicative language teaching.

Prague-CastleThe conjunction of both a descriptive and a functional perspective prompted an interest in comparative linguistics, and, specifically, in the way that different languages express the same functions.  Languages, for example, divide between those (like English) that express movement using constructions where the manner is encoded in the verb and the direction in a particle, e.g. Juan ran in (the house); she limps out (of the kitchen), and those (like Spanish or French) where the direction is expressed in the verb, while the manner is expressed in some kind of non-finite construction: Juan entró (en la casa) corriendo;  elle sort (de la cuisine) en boitant. Hence English is particularly well endowed with manner of movement phrasal verbs: saunter off, stride about, scurry away, slide down, etc.

Prague school linguists argued that ‘confronting’ such differences should form the basis of language course design and classroom practice. As Vachek (1972: 24) puts it,

‘In language teaching, the instructor using the contrastive method makes a point of stressing, in the taught foreign language, not only those of its features which are identical or parallel in it with the corresponding features of the pupil’s mother tongue, but also, and particularly, those features in which the two languages are found to differ.’

Likewise, Fried (1968: 45), another Prague School associate, advocated an approach in which ‘the student is systematically guided and made to realize the functional differences that exist between the foreign language…and his native tongue’, and he adds: ‘Two-way translation may not be excluded here’.

Prague-TowerHow was this realized in practice?  Tantalizingly, in a footnote Fried refers to a series of textbooks, called Nová cesta k jazykum: Co není v učebních (‘A New Approach to Languages: What cannot be found in textbooks’), one of which, written by Mathesius himself and published in 1936, was called Nebojte se angličtiny (‘Don’t be afraid of English’). (Can my dear readers in the Czech Republic or Slovakia keep an eye out for this – the title alone is worth the price of the book!)

Short of knowing how Mathesius went about it, I’m assuming that one way of realizing a ‘confrontational approach’ might be to take the deductive route, in which the rules of the target language are compared and contrasted with those of the students’ mother tongue.

A more inductive approach, however, seems better attuned to current methodology. Here, for example, is my attempt to contrast a feature of English which is not shared to anything like the same extent with Spanish:

1.            Read the text in English and Spanish


Coffee is made from the beans of the coffee plant. Coffee bushes grow best in warm, wet highland areas, such as in Brazil and Kenya. Inside each red berry are one or two beans. At harvest time, the beans are removed and dried in the sun. Then they are roasted until they are brown, and sold, either ground or whole. Coffee is exported all over the world.


El café se hace con los granos de la planta del café.   El arbusto de café crece mejor en tierras altas, cálidas, y húmedas, como en Brasil y en Kenia. Dentro de cada baya roja hay uno o dos granos. Después de la recolección, se extraen los granos y se secan al sol.  Entonces se tuestan hasta que adquieren un color morrón, y se venden, o molidos o en grano. El café se exporta a todo el mundo.

2.            How do you say…

1. El café se hace con los granos de la planta del café.
2. Se extraen los granos
3. Se secan al sol.
4. Se tuestan
5. Se venden
6. El café se exporta.

3.            Can you work out the rule for these sentences? How does it differ from Spanish?

Incidentally, has anyone done ‘running translations’? I.e., as in running dictations, a text is pinned up at some distance from where the students, working in groups, have to translate it, one student acting as the ‘runner’. Is there any mileage in it, do you think? 😉


Cook, G. (2010) Translation in Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fried, V. (1968) ‘Comparative linguistic analysis in language teaching’, in Jalling, H. (ed.) Modern Language Teaching, London: Oxford University Press.

Scheffler, P. (2012) ‘Theories pass. Learners and teachers remain,’ Applied Linguistics, 33, 5: 603-607.

Vachek, J. (1972) ‘The linguistic theory of the Prague School’, in Fried, V. (ed.) The Prague School of Linguistics and Language Teaching, London: Oxford University Press.

Many thanks to Jeremy Taylor for his lovely photos of Prague.