Instances of the Comparative Fallacy

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JungEun Year


The comparative fallacy, first termed by Bley-Vroman (1983), cautioned against the theoretically untenable comparison of second language (L2) learners’ linguistic systems to the target language norm. In other words, it warns that studies which examine interlanguage (IL) only in relation to the target grammar may hide a fuller, more complete picture of L2 learners’ internally systematic knowledge and result in an only partially correct or even misleading understanding of that knowledge (e.g., Bley-Vroman, 1983; Lakshmanan & Selinker, 2001). The purpose of this paper is to understand how the comparative fallacy may have a disastrous effect on investigations of IL. This paper begins with a brief discussion of the comparative fallacy. Then, it considers some instances of the comparative fallacy through a review of two empirical studies (Liu & Gleason, 2002 and Robertson, 2000). In this section, the focus is on (a) the use of obligatory context and (b) reliance on the notion of omission in data analysis. Finally, concluding comments address methodological issues that could help researchers avoid the comparative fallacy.

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