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Title: Fossilization
Submitter: Lisa Grenier
Description: I have been teaching ESL for the past 20 years or so. I’ve been
thinking about fossilization lately. I know fossilization isn’t an exact
term, so I’d like to define how I am using it. I specifically mean the
syntactic (rather than phonological or lexical) errors that some students
make that are very resistant to change over a period of years. And I am
only concerned with the students whose interlanguage is so far from
the target language that they are either 1) difficult to understand or 2)
suffer stigma due to their lack of language skills.

The limited research on this (at least what I have been able to find)
seems spongy, that is inexact and without much rigor, to me.
Fossilization isn't even well defined, so it's not always clear that we are
talking about the same thing when we refer to fossilized language. It's
frustrating because this topic is very important to me as an ESL
teacher. It can and should affect my teaching practice.

Many teacher/researchers have concluded that fossilization is due to
affective factors. Something doesn't seem right to me about this. While I
think that may be some of the answer, I am disinclined to think it is the
whole answer. By and large, most students with highly fossilized
interlanguage began learning the L2 after 30 which makes me think
that age of acquisition is important here. In addition, many of these
students seem to have somewhat weak skills in their L1. (Both of these
observations are antecdotal. I often don't speak the students' L1 well
enough to judge the second claim myself. I am basing this on native
speaker reports.)

There are a number of theories about fossilization, and I find that a
teacher’s theory of its origin will influence their practice. I’m suspicious
that grammar acquisition may have a (loose) critical period, and so that
in spite of the best intentions of teachers and learners, it may be
practically impossible to change certain fossilized forms in certain
students. Other teachers believe that it is more an issue of bad habits;
students have learned an incorrect form and have practiced it so much
that it now sounds right to them.

The question is and remains, how does one best help the older second
language learner? Does one continue to beat them over the head with
do support or should one concentrate on vocabulary and stock
grammatically correct phrases that can be learned as chunks? Does a
teacher try to limit incorrect utterances (abhorrent to me, I must admit)
or allow students to speak freely paying most attention to
Date Posted: 09-Jul-2012
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
LL Issue: 23.2976
Posted: 09-Jul-2012

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