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Contrastive linguistics seeks to study and explain any two languages. This includes listing the differences and similarities between them. Contrastive linguistics has also been called differential linguistics and is a sub-section of comparative linguistics that is separated by its studying of only two languages at any one time.
This area studies languages in order to discern how they developed as they did and what other languages they are historically related to. For example, comparative linguistic studies of Hungarian show its earliest links to Chinese and Korean, then how it was influenced by Mongolian, Turkish and other languages as the Magyars moved west across Siberia and eventually into Europe. Such studies have also shown how and when Hungarian split from its closest language partner, Finno-Estonian.
There are many subdivisions of comparative linguistics and, therefore, also of contrastive linguistics as they use similar techniques. The discipline is traditionally broken down into two main groups: general comparative linguistics and specialized comparative linguistics. General comparative linguistics is broken down into descriptive, typological and historical linguistics, while specialized comparative linguistics is broken down into generic comparative, the theory of linguistic contact and areal linguistics.
The theory of linguistic contact becomes more important during contrastive linguistic studies. It looks at the relationship of two languages. Not all languages studied in contrastive linguistics are related or have had contact with one another, but it allows the linguist to look at possible changes one language has influenced in another such as transfers and interference. This is known as the theory of bilingualism and includes the creation of creoles and translation.
Both comparative and contrastive linguistics look at similar areas of a language. This includes the vocabulary or words used by the language and how those words are affected when they are pluralized or inflected. They also examine how a language uses syntax to form sentences, grammar to organize words and sentences, phonology and also how culture creates idioms.
Contrastive linguistics was first developed in the 1950s. It was based on the ideas of linguistic structuralism and was initially aimed not at linguistic studies, but at helping foreign language teachers. This aim was intended to make it easier to understand learning a second language and how to teach it most effectively. Contrastive linguistics led to large-scale linguistic projects across Europe in the 1970s before moving into academia.
The study of contrastive linguistics follows four basic procedures. The first is to identify the two languages being studied. The second requires a full description of the characteristics of each language. Third, the scholar looks for juxtaposition; bonds between the two languages. In the fourth, the scholar compares the two languages to see how they correspond with one another.
One could actually do a pretty good comparison of American English vs. British English. Both variants come from the same roots, but spelling, slang and other things have differed over the years. For a quick example, a flashlight is called a torch in England, but a torch is something completely different in the United States.