LINGUIST List 23.2976

Mon Jul 09 2012

Disc: Fossilization

Editor for this issue: Kristen Dunkinson <>

Date: 06-Jul-2012
From: Lisa Grenier <>
Subject: Fossilization
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I have been teaching ESL for the past 20 years or so. I've beenthinking about fossilization lately. I know fossilization isn't an exactterm, so I'd like to define how I am using it. I specifically mean thesyntactic (rather than phonological or lexical) errors that some studentsmake that are very resistant to change over a period of years. And I amonly concerned with the students whose interlanguage is so far fromthe 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 aretalking about the same thing when we refer to fossilized language. It'sfrustrating because this topic is very important to me as an ESLteacher. It can and should affect my teaching practice.

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

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

The question is and remains, how does one best help the older secondlanguage learner? Does one continue to beat them over the head withdo support or should one concentrate on vocabulary and stockgrammatically correct phrases that can be learned as chunks? Does ateacher try to limit incorrect utterances (abhorrent to me, I must admit)or allow students to speak freely paying most attention tocomprehensibility?

Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics                             Language Acquisition

Page Updated: 09-Jul-2012