The Comparative Fallacy in SLA Research

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Sunhee Song


In most of the second language acquisition (SLA) research done in the 1960s and 1970s, the focus was either on errors defined in terms of the mature second language (L2) system, or on items regarded as having been adequately acquired when they were supplied 90 percent accurately in obligatory contexts. This made all the more important the early eighties warning issued to SLA researchers by Bley-Vroman (1983) as to the danger of falling into “the comparative fallacy”- that is, relying on theoretical constructs which are defined strictly in relation to the target language (TL) norm. He noted that “work on the linguistic description of learners’ language can be seriously hindered or sidetracked by a concern with the target language” (p. 2), thus suggesting that the learner’s internally-constructed second language is worthy of study in its own right, not just as a degenerate form of the target system. In other words, SLA researchers should not adopt a normative TL perspective, but rather seek to discover how an interlanguage (IL) structure that appears to be non-standard can nonetheless be used meaningfully by an L2 learner.

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