Contrastive Linguistics Essential Questions

This module presents a list of questions about languages and the subsystems of a language to establish the contrasts between the features of two languages.


Which phonemes in the two languages bear some similarity in articulation? Which phonemes in the target language (L2) do not exist in L1? Which phonemes exist but in different positions within words?

Which consonants cluster together? In which positions do clusters occur? Are there consonant clusters that exist in L1 but not in L2? Are there consonants that are voiced in L1 but not in L2?

Are vowel sounds “flat” or tonal? Are there diphthongs (two or more vowels together in a syllable)?

Is stress within words based on phonemes or syllables?

Are there words that are elided together when they are in juxtaposition?

Is intonation used to signal statements versus questions? Is intonation used to convey emphatic or emotional meanings?


Are there forms of word inflections that are common to both languages (formation of plurals)? Are inflections different between the two languages? Are there forms of inflection that exist in one language but are absent in another (verb tense endings, possessives).

Which classes of words are inflected (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, articles)? Does the language require agreement (subject-verb, adjectives, etc.)?

Is derivation a means of “word building” such as with prefixes, suffixes & root words? Do the languages share a common root language such that affixes have the same meaning (cognates)?

Grammar and Syntax

Which are the major or most common sentence patterns?  How are “kernel sentences” transformed or made more complex? Are sentence patterns altered for declarative versus interrogative functions or negation?

What are the meaningful signals (word order, inflection, function words)?

Are the languages’ forms for conveying tense equally simple or complex?

Do the languages have mood as well as tense to convey nuances of meaning (such as Spanish subjunctive)?


Are there meanings that are conveyed through compound verbs or verb phrases in one language but not the other (Ex: English “to look for” = Spanish “buscar”)?

Does the language have “word families” or words with a common semantic base? How are these derived? Are there common endings or word formation rules for conveying semantic relatedness (to bake, baker; pan, panadero)?

Do the languages have idiomatic expressions? Can these be translated literally from one language to the other?

Are nuances of meaning conveyed through word order variations (un hombre pobre vs. un pobre hombre)?

Writing System (Orthography)

What kind of writing system is used (alphabetic, syllabic, logo-graphic)? What kind of script is used? How is a page read (left to right, top to bottom)?

Is the match between sound and spelling regular and consistent? Are there multiple letter-sound associations for few or many letters or combinations of letters? Are there combinations of letters or spelling patterns that signal phonological variations?

Are diacritical marks used to signal phonological features? If so, do the marks signal letter-sound relationships? Tones? Syllabic stress?

Are there combinations of letters (morphemes) used to signal grammatical features (possession, verb tense) ? If so, are these signals phonetically consistent?

What contractions are generally permitted? Are diacritical marks used to signal contractions?

How are numbers, dates, addresses, etc., written? Are there abbreviations and if so, what do they represent?

Which punctuation marks are used? What do they represent?


How many forms of address exist in each language? Do verb forms change depending on who is being spoken to or about? Does the sex or family relationship of the person talked to or about require changes in language forms?

What gestures accompany language use? When and how?

How are addresses, phone numbers, dates, etc. said in L1 versus L2?