What is Fossilization?

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Fossilization occurs when a learner reaches a plateau in second language acquisition and stops making progress. In fossilization, nonstandard linguistic forms become seemingly permanently incorporate into an individuals L2 competence (Brown, p. 264). Vigil and Oller explain positive feedback as the cause of fossilization. For example, my daughter, whose first language is Mandarin, after seeing a doctor may tell me, “I need to eat this medicine before each meal.” I understand that she means take medicine rather than eat medicine. Eat medicine is a direct translation of the Chinese [chī yào (吃藥)]. I respond by telling her I will remind her before dinner. This positive feedback of my daughter’s utterance could be reinforcing an incorrect form of English. Am I hindering my daughter’s development of English by not correcting her at that moment? I don’t think so. I’m just delighted she chose to speak to me in English over Mandarin so I don’t correct her. When it’s time to take her medicine, I can model the proper form by telling her, “It’s time to take your medicine.” Perhaps by the time her prescription runs out she will internalize the proper form.

I think that fossilized language forms can be corrected. A change of environment such as a student studying abroad could present the language form enough times during the day to internalize the correct form. Enrolling in a class surrounded by other motivated individuals could give the speaker enough practice using the correct form to undo fossilization. I agree with H. Douglas Brown, author of Principles of Language Learning and Teaching in that stabilization may be a more appropriate term over fossilization. Fossilization implies non-changing afterwards. Fossilized trilobites will at no time come back to life but a person’s second language acquisition can reach plateaus and break through them in the correct learning environments.

Reference:

Brown, H. D. (2014). Principles of language learning and teaching: A course in second language acquisition. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

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