Evolution of and Approaches to the Concept of 'Fossilization'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Evolution of the Concept ‘Fossilization’ and Key Conceptional Issues Surrounding It
2.1 Definitions by Selinker
2.2 What Do Others Think?
2.3 Key Issues and an Alternative Definition by Han (2004)
2.3.1 Global or Local Fossilization?
2.3.2 Fossilization as Product or Process?
2.3.3 Empirical Research
2.3.4 Definition by Han

3. Fossilization and Second Language Instruction

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Fossilization is commonly described in SLA literature as a “phenomenon of non-progression of learning despite continuous exposure to input, adequate motivation to learn, and sufficient opportunity for practice” (Han 13). The Question behind this notion is: Are adults able to ever acquire native-like competence in an L2? And if some learners are, what does this mean with respect to a majority of learners who seem not to be (cf. Han 13)? This bifurcation of possible outcomes in learning a second language is mirrored in the large variety of terms used to describe the concept of ‘fossilization’. Among others, it is described “as ‘virtual halt’, ‘linguistic monstrosities’, ‘plateau’, ‘rigor mortis’, ‘stopping short’, ‘fossilized variation’, ‘permanent optionality’, ‘siesta’ [and] ‘endstate’”(Han 13 - 14). Such a range of labels reveals differing conceptual ideas about the topic’s nature concerning its powers of spread within the learner’s interlanguage, its finitude, reoccurring continuation and inevitableness. The terms ‘linguistic monstrosities’ and ‘fossilized variation’ rather hint at only parts of the interlanguage being affected by fossilization as opposed to the notion of a completely ‘fossilized interlanguage’. The term ‘virtual halt’ supports this idea that while some aspects seem to be fossilized others might continue to develop. Whereas the terms ‘rigor mortis’ and ‘endstate’ convey an understanding of fossilization’s lethal and final everlastingness prohibiting any further linguistic development whatsoever, the terms ‘siesta’, ‘plateau’ and ‘permanent optionality’ ,on the other hand, consider the concept to be negotiable in some sense holding an option of resuming linguistic development.

In this paper I will very briefly outline some of the major stopping points in the more than three-decade evolution of the concept ‘fossilization’ and illustrate key conceptional issues. Relating to these difficulties I will look at recent voices who express the need for more comprehensive empirical research and rethinking of hitherto approaches and convictions. In doing so, the focus will also be on fossilization in relation to second language instruction.

2. Evolution of the concept fossilization’ and key conceptional issues surrounding it

2.1. Definitions by Selinker

Selinker introduced the term ‘fossilization’ to the field of SLA in 1972. This early understanding of the concept presents it as one consisting of both a “cognitive mechanism” as well as a “performance-related structural notion” (Han 14). The former is pictured as being a “constituent of a latent psychological structure” and in charge of the whole process of second language acquisition including its fossilization (Han 14). It is thought to underlie the latter, which is the observable language production of a second language learner who tends to keep reproducing non-native like linguistic features which were thought to be removed from his/her performance (cf. Han 14). Selinker’s concept, therefore, understands both parts to be interrelated.

Looking at fossilization from the performance-related structural view, the concept is build up in an indirect way when basing it on “putative fossilizable structures” (Han 14), that is linguistic items, subsystems and rules, observed from a learner’s backsliding to them (cf. Han 14). Selinker draws from this the suggestion that “fossilizable structures are persistent [and] resistant to external influences” as well as that “fossilization affects both child and adult L2 learners alike” (Han 15) thereby denying L2 learners the ability to achieve a native-like language level (cf. Han 15). Especially this concluding notion with its fundamental importance for any L2 learner attracted the attention of second language researchers. From then on, the concept of ‘fossilization’ experienced “a gradual abstraction and an expansion in scope” (Han 15).

During the following years, Selinker as well worked on his concept further, in 1978 together with Lamendella, stating that fossilization is a permanent cessation of IL learning before the learner has attained TL norms at all levels of linguistic structure and in all discourse domains in spite of the learner’s positive ability, opportunity, and motivation to learn and acculturate into target society. (quoted in Han 15).

Here, the notion of fossilization exceeds the backsliding to linguistic features which were thought to be overcome. Rather, it is suggested that the whole interlanguage learning process is permanently stopped. Furthermore, Selinker and Lamendella extend the spread of fossilization to be effective “at all levels of linguistic structure and in all discourse domains” as opposed to fossilization of subsystems, rules and linguistic items. This notion marks a conceptual change from local fossilization in form of so called ‘fossilizable structures’ to global fossilization to be understood as assumed ‘fossilized interlanguage’ (cf. Han 16). The learners might try as hard as they can to reach native-like competence but in the end “no adult can hope to ever speak a second language in such a way that s / he is indistinguishable from native speakers of that language” (Selinker 1996, quoted in Han 15). This expresses the notion that fossilization is inevitable and innate (Han 15). In 1992, Selinker and Lakshmanan stress that fossilization can be empirically discovered by looking for “long-term persistence” of non-target-like linguistic features (quoted in Han 15).

2.2. What do others think?

As will be seen, numerous approaches to and interpretations of the concept of ‘fossilization’ exist throughout the SLA literature. However, many of them are at its core extended understandings of Selinker’s original 1972 definition, be it with focus on the cognitive or on the performance-related dimension, or on both of them (cf. Han 15).

Lowther, for example, in 1983 proposed the notion that “[f]ossilization, as presented in much of the literature, is understood to be the inability of a person to attain nativelike ability in the target language (emphasis added) (quoted in Han 16). The usage of the term ‘inability’ builds on Selinker’s view that fossilization is essentially a mechanism which is engendered by what is happening in the L2 learner’s cognition (cf. Han 16).

However, other researchers concentrate on the performance-related part of Selinker’s original 1972 fossilization definition, as for example R. Ellis in 1985 when stating that [f]ossilized structures can be realized as errors or as correct target language forms. If, when fossilization occurs, the learner has reached a stage of development in which feature x in his interlanguage has assumed the same form as in the target language, then fossilization of the correct form will occur. If, however, the learner has reached a stage in which feature y still does not have the same form as the target language, the fossilization will manifest itself as error. (quoted in Han 16)

R. Ellis understands fossilization to arise in the course of any L2 learning process at some point in time eventually. Therefore, it is furthermore suggested that it is not only incorrect language forms which are object to fossilization but also features of correct target language performance (cf. Han 16). This notion can already be found with Vigil and Oller in 1976:

We will extend the notion of fossilization to any case where grammatical rules, construed in the broadest sense, become relatively permanently incorporated into the psychologically real grammar. [...] It is not only the fossilization of so called ‘errors’ that must be explained, but also the fossilization of correct forms that conform to the target language forms. (quoted in Han 17)

Vigil and Oller understand fossilization to be a process which comes into being when rules of grammar for a relative longer time are applied by L2 learners. This means here that fossilization can and does affect non-native-like as well as native-like linguistic features.

However, many researchers reject this notion and rather advocate the view that the concept of ‘fossilization’ should be bound to so-called ‘errors’ only. Hyltenstam supports this in 1988 when defining fossilization as follows:

[Fossilization] covers features of the second language learner’s inter-language that deviate from the native speaker norm and are not developing any further, or deviant features which - although seemingly left behind - re-emerge in the learner’s speech under certain conditions. Thus, the learner has stopped learning or has reverted to earlier stages of acquisition. (quoted in Han 17).

Hyltenstam agrees with Selinker’s 1972 definition that the main features of fossilization are either the constant production of deviant, non-native-like linguistic forms or the backsliding to them. Another representative of this opinion is Preston who in 1989 understands fossilization to persistently display incorrect linguistic forms in learner’s interlanguage performances (cf. Han 17).

So far in this brief evolutionary outline, fossilization has been looked at as an interlanguage product. However, there also exist notions of the concept as being a stage in the in the interlanguage process. An advocate for this view is Bley-Vroman in 1989:

It has long been noted that foreign language learners reach a certain stage of learning - a stage short of success - and that learners then permanently stabilize at this stage. Development ceases, and even serious conscious efforts to change are often fruitless. Brief changes are sometimes observed, but they do not ‘take’. The learner backslides to the stable state. (quoted in Han 18).

In this view Bley-Vroman expresses the understanding that fossilization appears as an accompanying phase of the interlanguage process in which learner development permanently stabilizes (cf. Han 18). It is conveyed that learners will very hardly be able to reach beyond this stage, which portrays it as the final stage in the learning process. Fossilization, therefore, is understood as being inevitable.

Tarone supports this notion of inevitableness very strongly in 1994 when emphasizing that a “central characteristic of any interlanguage is that it fossilizes - that is, it ceases to develop at some point short of full identity with the target language” (quoted in Han 18). It is clearly pointed out that fossilization is not learner- specific but rather will inevitably happen to every L2 learner whatsoever.

2.3. Key Issues and an Alternative Definition by Han (2004)

The definitions of ‘fossilization’ pointed out reveal that there exists a variety of approaches to the concept. Concerning fossilization, the field of SLA today is marked by diversity rather than uniformity, despite the fact that all researches assign significance to the concept (cf. Han 21). Fidler distils three focal points from the discussion.


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Evolution of and Approaches to the Concept of 'Fossilization'
University of Münster  (Englisches Seminar)
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evolution, approaches, concept, fossilization
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Annika Onken (Author), 2010, Evolution of and Approaches to the Concept of 'Fossilization', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/187862


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