Reflecting on Fossilisation
Laura Edwards has worked in schools and universities in the USA, Spain, Ireland and Germany. As well as teaching Business English, she works in test development. With an MA in Education Leadership and a second in Education and Technology, her focus is on language learning, creativity and technology. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thinking about errors
Fossilisation is something I’ve thought about a lot over the last few years as I met more and more C1 levels students while teaching in-company English classes. Required to use English daily, with customers, suppliers, or international colleagues, these students switch from German to English with ease and are very successful at what they do. Yet, despite all the language input they get, each one has certain things they continue to get wrong. These errors, in pronunciation, grammar or lexis, persist even after targetted instruction and feedback. They appear to have become fossilised.
I could say that my research into the topic of fossilisation stems from these observations and a desire to help my students progress. However, that’s only partly true. My real motives are actually a lot more selfish. As an English speaker in a non-English speaking country, it is my own language learning journey that I obsess over. Marooned at C1 for what feels like an eternity, I saw my struggle with persistent errors in my students’ frustrations and my interest in the topic grew.
When someone gently corrects a wrong preposition or recasts my statement highlighting a misused adjective ending, I’m embarrassed. But more than that, I feel annoyed. I wonder why I keep getting this or that particular point wrong after all this time. ‘Deutsche Sprache, Schwere Sprache’ my friends say (German language, hard language), but as an explanation for why it is that some things just don’t stick, it’s hardly satisfying.
One of the most persistent myths around language learning is that you need a natural talent to succeed. If after a few years, you’re still struggling, it's easy to conclude that you just don’t have the talent, that you’ve reached the limit of your ability, that your language development has simply fossilised.
What is Fossilisation?
Fossilisation, ‘the long term persistence of plateaus of non-target-like structures in the interlanguage of non-native speakers’ (Selinker and Lakshmanan, 1992, p.197) refers to the idea that a learner’s interlanguage system reaches a point where the development of some or all of their interlanguage forms ceases, without having reached a native-like state. When discussing students' progress, teachers often talk about plateaus to mean a stalling or noticeable slowing down of learning in general. However, Selinker, who coined the term fossilisation, was looking at the stalling of specific features of a learner’s language, when a semi-developed linguistic form or construction stops progressing.
Han clarifies it by saying that despite ‘abundant exposure to input, adequate motivation to learn, and plentiful opportunity for communicative practice acquisition stops before the learner reaches target language mastery’’ (2013, p.137 .
The combination of my students’ stubborn errors and my own stalled development, despite high levels of language exposure, practice and motivation, led to fossilisation becoming a bit of an obsession of mine.
At first, I found the idea reassuring. Instead of scrutinising these persistent errors and my failure to eliminate them, I could essentially dismiss them, saying ‘It’s not my fault – it’s fossilisation!’
Of course, this is an oversimplification of the concept and is problematic.
Yet, in speaking with colleagues about this, I realised that we lacked a clear understanding of fossilisation, and as a result tended to misuse the term, applying it liberally to any annoying error our students repeatedly made or to those students who seemed to be stuck somewhere around B1 forever.
From reading the literature I realised that fossilisation implies the end state when no further progress in that particular area can occur. Yet we were labelling all bad habits fossilisation, even those of low-level learners who fail to remember the third person ‘s’, or seem unable to use the present perfect appropriately, when these were clearly cases of incomplete learning. Were any of these errors really fossilised or were we just being impatient with learners’ interlanguage development, ignoring the natural order of acquisition?
My colleagues and I were not the only ones having difficulties. Han (2013) says that some teachers embrace the concept, but falsely assign fossilisation to errors that are not fossilised at all, while other teachers refuse to believe that it exists, as this would imply a situation where no learning is happening. Understanding fossilisation would ‘lead to efforts to maximise learning while entertaining realistic expectations about the learning outcome, whereas ignorance would lead to the use of non-differentiated strategies, which diminishes rather than enhances learning’ (Han, 2011, p.480).
An alternative approach to stubborn errors
Fossilisation seems plausible, but it is hard to prove empirically and the more I read about the more unsure I become. How can we as teachers recognise an error as fossilised and not just a developmental error, a case of incomplete learning? How much time (months, years or decades) must pass with no development for a linguistic feature to be identified as fossilised?
Experts say fossilisation cannot be remedied. It’s a permanent state. In the book Studies of Fossilization in second language research (Han & Odlin, 2006), Diane Larsen Freeman says the term should only be applied to learners who have been given every opportunity to learn and are motivated to do so, but still fail.
As a result, some scholars suggest that the more neutral term ‘stabilisation’ should be used (Mitchell et al., 2013), as it does not imply a permanent cessation of development. Stabilised errors are the ones that eventually disappear as the learner makes progress, whereas fossilised errors are those which do not disappear entirely regardless of the input and exposure given to the learner.
After all my reading into the topic, I decided to side with the scholars who suggest that the more neutral term such as ‘stabilisation’ should be used to refer to persistent errors (Mitchell et al., 2013), as this does not imply a permanent end to development.
What causes progress to stall?
Having wrestled with the definition, I looked at why a learner’s progress stalls, be it permanently (fossilisation) or temporarily (stabilisation). Mitchell and Myles (1998, p13) offer two suggestions. The psycholinguistic explanation is that ‘the language-specific mechanisms available to the young child simply cease to work for older learners, at least partly, and no amount of study and effort can recreate them.’ While, the sociolinguistic explanation states that ‘...older L2 learners do not have the social opportunities, or the motivation, to identify completely with the native speaker community, but may instead value their distinctive identity as learners or as foreigners.’
In other words, fossilisation is either related to age or it is connected to the person’s attitude and motivation, possibly tied up with a resistance to acculturation (the process of becoming adapted to the new culture).
This information was unexpected and had a huge impact on me. I had been blaming my problems on external factors: insufficient correction, L1 transfer, German being a ‘Schwere Sprache’ - a hard language. Yet, according to the experts, the reason I keep making the same mistakes, the reason my language development stalls is all down to me - my attitude, my motivation. It took very little soul searching for me to accept that, yes, I did have a motivation problem. I could blame it on my personality and a tendency towards laziness. I could blame negative experiences with grammar-focused instruction at university. I could blame my environment and the fact that communication at work, at home, with family and friends is primarily in English, freeing me of any real compulsion to improve my German grammar.
But it was the idea of learners resisting the process of acculturation that really struck a chord. I had never really considered that language skills might be hampered by someone’s wish to retain their ‘other’ identity, as a learner or foreigner. Being an English speaker who makes a living teaching English abroad - my job and my language are intertwined. My value is tied up to my language. So, it is no wonder that (consciously or not) I try to maintain my identity as a foreigner and as a result, (consciously or not) make less effort with German than I should.
Learning about fossilisation made me realise that I had been attributing my perceived lack of progress to external factors. This deprives me of my agency and is demotivating.
Finding a way forward
The first step towards remedying this would involve shifting my focus internally, to work on motivation and build self-efficacy: the belief in your own ability to take the necessary steps to succeed. A person’s efficacy beliefs affect how they ‘feel, think, motivate themselves and behave’ (Bandura, 1993, p.118). Learners with strong self-efficacy approach new tasks with confidence & a proactive attitude. They persist despite difficulties, trying different strategies and they use the cognitive, emotional & environmental resources at hand. Learners with weak self-efficacy avoid tasks they feel are beyond their ability. When obstacles arise, they tend to dwell on negative thoughts such as their own deficiencies or past failures, they exert less effort and may give up completely (Yang, 1999; Shamiri and Farvardin, 2016).
Self-efficacy is not something you either have or haven’t. It can be strengthened and developed.
As a language teacher, you’d imagine that when it comes to my own language learning, my self-efficacy would be fairly high. After all, I know how this learning thing works. But had I really applied my knowledge to my own learning? All this reflection was bringing me to the realisation that I probably had not.
The power of reflection
Reflection is defined by Boud, Keogh & Walker (1985, p19) as the ‘intellectual and affective activities in which individuals engage to explore their experiences in order to lead to new understandings and appreciation’. The inclusion of the word ‘affective’ is something that strikes me as very important, meaning concerned with or arousing feelings or emotions.
Reflection is very personal. Look at me - one minute I’m wondering why I seemed impervious to certain corrections and the next, I’m questioning my identity. But as Merizow (1990, p1) tells us ‘Reflection enables us to correct distortions in our beliefs and errors in problem-solving’ and so it is worth persevering with.
I have been experimenting with reflection in my lessons since completing an MA dissertation a few years ago which looked at the effect students’ use of audio recordings and transcription would have on noticing. During the study, participants were asked to reflect on what was going on, what they noticed, how they felt listening to the recordings etc. I quickly discovered that you can’t just tell people to reflect. Not everyone is open to the idea immediately, and many students need guidance.
Since then, I have explored many different methods of reflection with my students, including exit tickets, student journals, personal goal setting, self-assessment rubrics and group reflective discussions. Some ideas were more successful than others. Introducing reflection takes time, regardless of the methods or prompts used, but it is worth making it part of every lesson.
Making the learning process visible
Sometimes learning is not transparent for students. People often say, ‘I’ve no talent for languages’, or ‘I had English at school but my teacher wasn’t very good.’ They see their success or lack of success as being linked to circumstances beyond their control, a lack of talent or an unskilled teacher.
Reflection gets us thinking about learning, and what works for us, what doesn’t and why that could be. Sharing these thoughts helps students learn from each other, it demystifies the learning process and motivates them to try new strategies when faced with a challenge. Understanding that we can approach a task, such as dealing with individual learning difficulties and eliminating stubborn errors, in different ways develops autonomy and helps maintain motivation, which in turn increases self-efficacy. This connects back to what Han said about fossilisation and the need for realistic expectations about learning outcomes, and the need for differentiated strategies to deal with these errors. Reflection gives learners the power to identify their needs and goals, and choose their own methods of dealing with these.
How has this affected me? I tend not to use the term fossilisaiton when talking about my students’ progress - there’s hope for those persistent errors yet! We now talk about learning all the time - how we feel about what we’re learning, our achievements and challenges, the way we carry out tasks. This has worked towards demystifying learning somewhat, making it more manageable and success more achievable. And as a learner, I’m more aware of my errors and I make more of an effort to find out why something is the way it is, rather than just hoping it will eventually sink in without any effort on my part. I’m more hopeful and I may have even de-fossilised a few of those stubborn errors.
Bandura, A., 1993. Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational psychologist, 28(2), pp.117-148.
Boud, D., Keogh, R., & Walker, D. (1985). Reﬂection: Turning experience into learning. London, England: Kogan Page.
Han, Z., 2011. Fossilization: A classic concern of SLA research. The Routledge handbook of second language acquisition, pp.476-490.
Han, Z., 2013. Forty years later: Updating the fossilization hypothesis. Language Teaching, 46(2), pp.133-171.
Han, Z, and Odlin, T eds. Studies of fossilization in second language acquisition. Vol. 14. Multilingual Matters, 2006.
Mezirow, J., 1990. How critical reflection triggers transformative learning. Fostering critical reflection in adulthood, 1, pp.20.
Mitchell, R. and Myles, F. (1998). Second Language Learning Theories. London: Arnold.
Mitchell, R., Myles, F. and Marsden, E., 2013. Second language learning theories. Routledge.
Selinker, L. and Lakshmanan, U. 1992. Language transfer and fossilization: The multiple effects principle. Language transfer in language learning, pp.197-216.
Shamiri, H. and Farvardin, M.T., 2016. The effect of implicit versus explicit corrective feedback on intermediate EFL learners' speaking self-efficacy beliefs. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 6(5), p.1066.
Yang, N.D., 1999. The relationship between EFL learners' beliefs and learning strategy use. System, 27(4), pp.515-535.
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