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Review of  Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Annamaria Cacchione
Book Title: Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition
Book Author: ZhaoHong Han
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 15.2198

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Date: Wed, 21 Jul 2004 23:48:31 +0200
From: Annamaria Cacchione
Subject: Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition

AUTHOR: Han, ZhaoHong
TITLE: Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition
SERIES: Second Language Acquisition 5
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2004

Annamaria Cacchione, University for Foreigners of Siena - Italy

The FIRST CHAPTER is a general introduction to the main issues of the
topic. The author does not linger on fossilization definition, but
directly points out the deep theoretical gap between the concepts of
failure and fossilization, due, in her opinion, to the fact that
failure is not yet coherently understood, and, consequently, both the
constructs receive an idiosyncratic application by each author, and
this implies that the empirical phenomena designated as
fossilization/failure are widely disparate and the explanatory account
rather fragmented. On the other hand, some points are quite clear and

First of all, FLA - First Language Acquisition - and SLA - Second
Language Acquisition - differ because in FLA success dominates, while
in SLA there is a co-existance of success and failure, entwined in a
complicated relationship. In the second part of the chapter the author
introduces the conceptual framework she adopts in the book. The
framework is able to account both the facets of fossilization: general
failure and differential failure (or success). The two facets
correspond to two types of perspective: a macroscopic level of analysis
shows general failure, while a microscopic level of analysis can show
inter and intra- learner differential failure. Dividing the general
framework into the two perspectives can also serve to point out the
link between bio-cognitive constraints and ultimate attainment. Under
these kind of constraints, related first of all to the Critical Period
Hypotesys, it can be argued that ''adult learners are preconditioned to
fossilize, with asymptotic performance as the characteristic behavioral
reflex'' (pag. 9, italics in the original). The same constraints are not
useful to explain the individual variations in competence in an L2
(inter-learner variation) and the different kind and degree of failure
and success in different part of the interlanguage (intra-learner

The SECOND CHAPTER provides a survey of definition of fossilization,
showing the evolution of the concept since the first definition by
Selinker (1972). As conceptualized by Selinker, fossilization
implicates a cognitive mechanism - a sort of psychological structure -
and a performance-based phenomenon. Other important properties of
fossilization are persistence (fossilized structure are persistent) and
resistance (to external influences). But, above all, the most
interesting characteristic of fossilization - the one that made this
concept so interesting for researchers - is the implication (reached in
the second period of Selinker research) that it is inevitable: in
Selinker words ''no adult can hope to ever speak a second language in
such a way that s/he is indistinguishable from native speakers''. The
author also treats other definitions, that are quite often extended
reformulation of Selinker's. As a new important factor, some
definitions imply that fossilization regards correct as well incorrect
(not target like) forms. At the survey end, the author proposes her
definition, meanwhile focusing the attention to two main questions: a.
is fossilization global or local?
b. is it a product or a process?

According to Han, fossilization is more local then global, and it is a
process at a cognitive level, but is a product at the empirical level.
The two levels are strictly interrelated in a cause-effect relationship
(cognitive level causes the empirical one). Moreover, fossilization is
persistent over time, and resistant to environmental influences (e.g.
large exposure to Target Language and pedagogic efforts).

CHAPTER THREE provides a wide examination of behavioural reflexes -
i.e. manifestations of failure - and causal variables of fossilization.
The author lingers over causal factors of fossilization, gathering them
in four main categories: environmental (external), cognitive,
neurobiological and socioaffective (internal). Then she examines some
causal factors of each categories more in details. Among environmental
variables, she treats the absence of corrective feedback and the
quality of input. Cognitive variables are: knowledge representation
(e.g. lack of access to Universal Grammar and failure of parameter
resetting in a generative framework, learning inhibiting learning in a
connectionist perspective), knowledge processing (e.g. automatization
of the FL system, lack of understanding, lack of sensitivity to input)
and psychological categories (e.g. change in emotional state, tendency
to focus on content, avoidance). Other internal causal variables are
neurobiological (e.g. age, decrease of cerebral plasticity) and socio
affective (e.g. satisfaction of communicative needs and will to
maintain identity). But which are the most important factors to
determine fossilization for the author? According to Han, fossilization
is first of all caused by internal factors of neurobiological type, but
can also be affected (aggravated or alleviated) by other external and
internal factors.

CHAPTER FOUR and CHAPTER FIVE analyze two important issues - one of a
neurobiological kind, the other of a cognitive type - in a macroscopic
perspective: critical period effects and native language transfer, both
determining, according with the general framework, general failure. The
Critical Period Hypothesis - introduced in 1967 by Lenneberg, a psycho-
biologist - states that there is a special (critical) period, from age
2 to 13, during which learning a (first) language is successful and
after which learning is quite impossible. This period is strictly
linked with a series of important neurological processes, like
lateralization, myelination, increasing of neurotransmitters ect. Given
that absolute importance in FLA, the question is if it is the same in
SLA. Main results in this research tell us that, while CP effects are
absolute in the acquisition of the first language and it can be defined
an all-or-nothing phenomenon, in the acquisition af a second language
it can be rather defined a sensitive period, because at any age
everyone can learn successfully some aspects of another language (but,
it seems, not all), but however there is a period of higher sensitivity
- until age of 7/10 - after which attaining native-like proficiency is
impossible: in other words, it's necessary to vary the meaning of
failure/success in the two cases of FLA and SLA. Another important
point is that in SLA the Sensitive Period affects differently the
different domains of language (it is modular): it is deeper on
phonology and morphosyntax, weaker on lexicon and pragmatics.

The following chapter analyzes L1 transfer and its relationship with CP
effects, to explain the general lack of success in adult L2 learning,
imposing bio-cognitive constraints on the learners perception and
sensitivity to L2 input, ''the outcome of which can only be an
incomplete mastery of the TL'' (p. 86). An example of this phenomenon is
the strong influence in phonological acquisition, in which the pre-
existent phonetic categories usually restrict the perception of L2
phonetic input. The chapter also provides an overview of the main kinds
of tranfer: transfer ''to somewhere'' and ''to nowhere'' (the principles
learners use to decide what is transferable), ''thinking for speaking'' -
related to Sapir-Whorf Theory - and L1 preprogramming (i.e. the L1
conceptual system guides the adult L2 learning).

To explain inter and intra-learner differential failure, CHAPTER SIX
makes a survey of the major methodological approaches suitable to
analyze fossilization at a microscopic level, making an interesting
critical evaluation of some of them. According to the author, for
example, the pseudo-longitudinal approach (i.e. using advanced learners
as the major source of information on fossilization) can only produce
general data, but is not able to reveal anything about individuality.
Otherwise, making a diagnosis of fossilization using corrective
feedback (i.e. learners resistant to c.f. are fossilized) does not
account for how the pedagogic intervention is structured, and for the
possibility that the intervention itself can be inadequate. Even the
approaches linked to time factors - LOR: length of residence and AOA:
age of arrival - have a limited scope of application, as they apply
only to people who reside in TL area, but they raise the fundamental
question about how it takes to be sure that time of acquiring SL is
enough. Researchers often use 5 years as the cut-off point, but it is
too vague and arbitrary to effectively work: it depends on which single
feature is under analysis. At the end of this survey, Han concludes
that none of these methodologies can function independently, but ''it
seems necessary that a combination of several metrics be used to
jointly identify fossilization'' (p. 99).

The second main issue of the chapter is the modular nature of
fossilization and the MEP - Multiple Effects Principle - together
intended to make a plausible account for inter and intra learner
fossilization. The modularity of fossilization is shown by the fact
that there is no evidence of fossilization of a whole interlanguage
system, while lots of evidences are provided for the main four facets
of (modular) fossilization: f. affecting linguistic features within the
same linguistic domain; f. selectively affecting:
comprehension/production - competence/performance - some domains of an
IL. The main question is what renders a linguistic feature so highly
vulnerable to fossilization, a question strictly related to the notion
of difficulty and complexity of features. The best answer is that
understanding difficulty have to manage with (objective) linguistic
complexity (i.e. lacking function-form relationship forms, highly
arbitrary units, non productive rules), (subjective) psycholinguistic
complexity (i.e. infrequent, irregular, semantically non transparent
and perceptually non salient forms) and the interaction between the two
both. The MEP, introduced by Selinker and Lakshmanan (1992) and
recently validated by Han and Selinker (1999-2001), highlights the
importance of considering fossilization as a result of the cluster
effect of different co-factors, some dependent (i.e. transfer) and some
others independent of the L1.

Exploring the relationship between teaching and fossilization, CHAPTER
SEVEN makes a very interesting inquiry about the real effects
instruction can produce on learners, starting from the common
assumption, made by many teachers, that it prevents fossilization (an
attitude called by VanPatten ''fossilophobia''). Illustrating the
findings of several studies, Han shows that it is a problem hard to
solve, involving both theory and practise, and that the main question -
to what extent instruction aids acquisition? - has a complex answer, as
it is necessary to determine, time by time, for which forms, for which
students, at which point in the learning process it occurs. So, while
in certain cases formal and explicit instructions can really aid
learners to acquire special kinds of complex features, in other cases
it can be useless if not even detrimental (instruction provides a
limited learning experience, within which it can even happen a
particular negative phenomenon called ''transfer of training'').

The book is written very systematically and clearly, with many adequate
and accurate examples of proving data and evidences (there is only one
exception that I, as an Italian native speaker, I cannot help pointing
out: at page 143, the first example of low communicative value is made
about inflections on adjectives in Italian, but the adjective -
'blanca' in 'la casa blanca' - is Spanish! - in Italian it is

The conceptual framework is also generally clear and easy to
understand, and this is one of the main characteristics that make the
book available both for students and researchers. There is however a
point that needs, in my opinion, more explanation and search. Since the
first chapter, Han insists on defining fossilization as a process
rather then a product - in her words it is ''an observable process, with
product only being inferable'' - . All over the book she often refers to
this definition, but without explaining it in details, so it gives the
reader the impression that something very important has been left out.

Very appreciated is the effort made by the author to give the reader a
complete idea of how complex is the notion of fossilization, and how
useful is analyzing the different relationships between it and other
important related issues, as age, the influence of L1 etc. The notion
of fossilization, in fact, has evolved ''from a monolithic concept [...]
to a much more complex one, linked to multiple manifestations of
failure in learning''.

I think the most interesting parts of the book are the analysis of the
methodologies used in diagnosing fossilization (chapter six) and the
chapter seven, about the practical problems involved by the application
of the theoretic items.

They both deal with the relationships between theory and practice in
such a clear way that they succeed in emphasizing those aspects which
are usually not much or not at all examined though they are very
interesting (for example, the negative effect of explicit and formal
instruction and the ''transfer of training'' effect). Of particular
interest is also the definition of what the author calls ''zone of
capability'' - corresponding to what is really useful to teach to effect
real positive change in learners' mental representations and behaviour
- because, starting from concrete purposes of operative definitions, it
compels to deal with the (theoretic) notion of ''what is difficult'',
''what is complex'', ''for whom (learner or researcher?) something is
difficult/complex, and why'', and so on.

Finally, I make some remarks that do not really affect my positive
global judgment. Some crucial issues strictly related to the topic are
left untreated, and only in the Summary and Conclusion the author talks
a little about it, as implications for further researches and practice.
It is essentially the problem of correctly defining what target
language is, and, correlatively, what ''native-like'' means. I think
these questions are too important to put them off till another
treatment since they can really change the terms of the whole
fossilization problem.

On this subject I dislike the author refers only to the studies of the
Anglo-Saxon area, while these problems, and in particular the last
mentioned ones, have been dealt in an enlightening way by several
Italian professors, like Giacalone-Ramat (1992, 2003) and Vedovelli

Giacalone Ramat, A. (ed.) (2003) Verso L'Italiano. Percorsi e strategie
di acquisizione. Roma, Carocci.

Giacalone Ramat, A. (1992) Grammaticalization process in the area of
temporal and modal relations. Studies in Second Language Acquisition

Selinker,L. (1972) Interlanguage. IRAL 10 (2), 209-31.

Selinker, L. and Lakshmanan, U. (1992) Language transfer and
fossilization: the multiple effects principle. In S. Gass and L.
Selinker (eds.) Language Transfer in Language Learning (pp. 197-216).
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

VanPatten, B. (1988) How juries get hung: problems with the evidence
for a focus on form in teaching. Language Learning 38, 243-60.

Vedovelli, M. (1994) Fossilizzazione, cristallizazione e competenza
spontanea in italiano L2. In A. Giacalone Ramat e M. Vedovelli (eds.)
Italiano lingua seconda/lingua straniera. Atti del XXVI congresso SLI.
Roma, Bulzoni, 519- 547.
Annamaria Cacchione is a third year PhD student at the University for
Foreigners of Siena - Italy. Her research interests are in Second
Language Acquisition (in particular in the acquisition of reported
speech), Conversational Analysis, Pragmatics.

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