Commentaries on the Comparative Fallacy in Second Language Research

Editor: J.D. Purdy


This issue of Teachers College, Columbia University Working Papers in TESOL & Applied Linguistics presents several brief commentaries on an important paper in the evolution of the field of second language acquisition: Bley-Vroman's The Comparative Fallacy in Interlanguage Studies: The Case of Systematicity (1983). The aim of this article was to affirm the view that the language system constructed by a second language (L2) learner is not simply a degenerate form of the target language, but is itself a worthwhile object of study. The comparative fallacy emerges when a researcher makes "the mistake of studying the systematic character of one language by comparing it to another" (p. 6). Bley-Vroman warns that care must be taken when utilizing concepts (e.g., obligatory context and error) that are defined in terms of a comparison between a learner's interlanguage and the target language. Failure to avoid the comparative fallacy will result in "incorrect or misleading assessments of the systematicity of the learner's language" (p. 3), and Bley-Vroman warns researchers against becoming "hindered or sidetracked by a concern with the target language" (p. 2).

An extension to the concept of the comparative fallacy was recently published by Lakshmanan and Selinker (2001), who warn that reliance on comparison with not only the target language, but also the learner's native language, could obscure systematicity in the learner's interlanguage. In addition, Lakshmanan and Selinker suggest that in Lardiere's (1998) study of past-tense marking in the interlanguage of a fossilized learner, it would have been more revealing to define obligatory context for the past tense in terms of the learner's interlanguage, rather than in terms of the target language. They recommended re-defining the obligatory context in terms of (a) the inherent semantic aspect of the predicate (i.e., achievement and accomplishment verbs are marked for past tense by L2 learners at a higher rate than activity and state verbs), and (b) grounding in discourse (i.e., the past tense is used by learners to mark events or situations that move the narrative forward, and is not used with background information). In Lardiere's reply (2003), however, she argues that these hypotheses, the Aspect Hypothesis and the Discourse Hypothesis, are applicable only to the beginning stages of L2 acquisition, not late stages. Lardiere goes on to claim that Lakshmanan and Selinker's suggestion may itself be susceptible to the comparative fallacy. For example, the aspectual properties of verbs in the lexico-semantic representations of an L2 learner may differ from those of a native speaker. Independent evidence of the learner's knowledge of the aspectual properties of the verbs under investigation is therefore needed to accurately estimate the learner's interlanguage competence.

It would seem from these papers that discourse on the nature of the comparative fallacy is not at an end. The commentaries below demonstrate the relevance of the notion of the comparative fallacy to second language research, and contribute to the on-going discussion on how researchers ought best to evaluate the interlanguage of second language learners.

Bley-Vroman, R. (1983). The comparative fallacy in interlanguage studies: The case of systematicity. Language Learning, 33, 1-17.
Lakshmanan, U., & Selinker, L. (2001). Analysing interlanguage: How do we know what learners know? Second Language Research, 17, 393-420.
Lardiere, D. (1998). Case and tense in the “fossilized” steady state. Second Language Research, 14, 1-26.
Lardiere, D. (2003). Revisiting the comparative fallacy: A reply to Lakshmanan and Selinker, 2001. Second Language Research, 19, 129-143.


The Comparative Fallacy Reflected in L2 Proficiency Tests
by Árpád Galaczi

The Comparative Fallacy in SLA Literature
by Ji Hyun Kim

The Comparative Fallacy: An Analysis and Discussion of Selected Research
by Eun-Young Kwon

The Comparative Fallacy in Tone Perception Studies
by Yeu-Ting Liu

Avoiding the Comparative Fallacy: A Review of Two Recent SLA Studies
by Shirin Murphy

The Comparative Fallacy in UG Studies
by Eun Sung Park

The Comparative Fallacy in Studies of the L2 Acquisition of Unaccusative Verbs
by J.D. Purdy

How to Avoid the Comparative Fallacy during Data Analysis: A Review of Doughty and Varela (1998) and Mackey (1999)
by Andrea Révész

The Comparative Fallacy in SLA Research
by Sunhee Song

The Comparative Fallacy in Studies on Corrective Feedback
by Mikiko Suzuki

Instances of the Comparative Fallacy
by JungEun Year


Comparative Fallacy; Interlanguage; Proficiency; L2; Multicompetence; Native Speaker; Tone; Unaccusatives

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