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Review of Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition
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
SYNOPSIS 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 definite.
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 variation).
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'').
EVALUATION 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 'bianca').
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 (1994).
REFERENCES 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 14:297-32.
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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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.