In linguistics, the term contrastive analysis refers to “a theoretically grounded, systematic and synchronic comparison of usually two languages, or at most no more than a small number of languages” (Mair). Such comparisons frequently reveal similarities and dissimilarities between or among those languages.
The purpose is not only to understand the languages themselves better, but also to understand characteristics that might make language learning easier or more challenging for speakers of those languages. For example, contrastive analysis of English and Chinese would reveal that while the two languages share the same word order (Subject-Verb-Object), Chinese–unlike English–does not have a system of definite and indefinite articles (a, an, the). Consequently, when instructors or tutors see an English language learner from China struggling to produce articles or place them correctly, a little research and analysis would reveal that the L1 in this case is causing some L2 interference because of linguistic transfer.
If an instructor is working in an EFL context or with a specific population in an ESL context, contrastive analysis is a fairly simple and useful tool. In an ESL context in which many different populations are represented, instructors may find such analysis to still be useful, but also time-consuming and challenging because of the diversity of students. Where and when possible, teachers ought to find ways to learn more about their students’ L1 as such activity can promote better teacher-student relationships and provide teachers with material for more incisive feedback in assessment.
Mair, Christian. Oxford Bibliographies, Oxford University Press, 22 Feb. 2018, DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199772810-0214. Accessed 12 Apr. 2019.