What's the Difference?

Activities for Linguistic Fieldwork

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an activity
View
some samples
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about the project

What are these?

This site generates simple but fun "What's the Difference?" activities that you can use for linguistic fieldwork and language documentation. They can help you figure out how a language expresses contrast. Are contrastive elements expressed with an intonational prominence? Do speakers use a special word order, or a special construction like a cleft or pseudocleft?

I made this site as part of my dissertation research on linguistic expressions of "Focus". Find-the-difference activities proved to be useful sources of data -- and fun for my consultants! -- but most commercially-available activities were only poorly suited to language documentation. A lot of the differences were hard to describe in words, or concerned culturally-specific items that other languages may not have words for. So I made a program to make my own, where I could better control the content: more culturally appropriate items, with linguistically expressible differences, and with a range of semantic differences (agent, patient, location, number, etc.)

How do I use these?

Print out an activity -- either one you've generated, or one of the samples -- and set the pages in front of your language consultant. Ask them, "What are the differences between these pictures?"

If they're not sure how to respond, you can say something like, "You could say, 'In this picture, this is happening, but in this picture, this is happening'." (I don't like to say more than this, in case using full English sentences primes them into using English-like contrast structures, rather than their own languages' structures.)

If you have two consultants available, you can do something that's even more fun: give each speaker one of the pictures, but don't let them see each other's. Ask them to discuss the pictures with a goal of figuring out what the differences are. This way you'll get contrastive sentences in comparatively natural dialogue.