The Comparative Fallacy in UG Studies

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Eun Sung Park


In his well-known paper, Bley-Vroman (1983) discusses the potentially harmful effect of the comparative fallacy, in which “the linguistic description of learners’ language may be seriously hindered or sidetracked by a concern with the target language” (p. 2). In order to avoid the problem, he urges researchers to focus on linguistic descriptions of learners’ languages with respect to their own logic, rather than comparing them with those of native speakers (NSs). Similarly, Cook (1999) cautions that many second language acquisition (SLA) research methods, such as grammaticality judgments, obligatory occurrences, and error analysis, involve comparing the second language (L2) speaker’s language with that of a native speaker. He also argues against measuring the success or failure of an L2 learner’s language use against native norms. Such arguments on the comparative fallacy (CF) are well-grounded, especially with regard to studies which employ direct comparison of a learner’s performance with NS norms. However, it may also be the case that the use of NS criterion could be useful in some studies, especially in Universal Grammar (UG)-related studies which focus on the nature of learners’ mental representations or interlanguage grammar (ILG), rather than their performance. 

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