Fossilization: five central issues
by ZhaoHong Han, Teachers College, Columbia University
"...let us look at an extract from an obituary of the renowned physicist, Chien-Shiung Wu (1912–1997) published in The Guardian, May 13, 1997:
"Professor Chien-Shiung Wu, who has died aged 83, was a physicist whose brilliance carried her from obscurity in China during the early thirties to fame in the United States during and after the second world war. As a postdoctoral physicist, speaking idiosyncratic English but with a unique knowledge of gaseous fission products, she was called in by the great Enrico Fermi when, in 1942, an experimental reactor began to run down within weeks of going critical. She quickly and correctly diagnosed poisoning by the rare gas xenon, produced in the fission process...
In 1992, Wu came to Europe for an 80th birthday symposium held in her honor at the international Cern laboratory at Geneva. She was delighted and, with her early difficulties with English still evident, talked about her beta decay work and the importance of choosing critical experiments. It is said that few left the meeting uninspired by her amazing clarity of thought, or unmoved by the power of her quiet yet very special genius."
Professor Chien-Shiung Wu, who arrived in the U.S. in 1936 at the age of 24 and had since lived and worked there until her death at 83, had 56 years of exposure to English, her second language. She was nevertheless unable to overcome all of her early difficulties with English, despite her undoubted intelligence and her enormous scientific achievements over the intervening decades. Why were some of her early language difficulties insurmountable? Professor Wu’s case is typical of millions of adult L2 learners who, despite long exposure and concerted efforts, become caught up somewhere in the learning process and find themselves unable to progress...
"The term “fossilization” was introduced to the field of SLA by Selinker
in 1972 on the basis of his observation that the vast majority of second
language learners fail to achieve native-speaker competence...
This earliest conception suggests several properties of fossilization. First,
fossilizable structures are persistent; second, they are resistant to external
influences; and third, fossilization affects both child L2 learners and adult L2
Fossilization is the process whereby the learner creates a cessation of interlanguage learning, thus stopping the interlanguage from developing, it is hypothesized, in a permanent way . . . The argument is that 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 1996b)
Hyltenstam (1988: 68), for example, gives the following definition of fossilization:
Fossilization – according to observations – is a process that may occur in the second language acquisition context as opposed to first language acquisition. It covers features of the second language learner’s interlanguage 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.
Bley-Vroman (1989: 47–9), for example, asserts:
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.
Fossilization is thus taken to be “permanent stabilization”, and as such, an
ultimate stage in the interlanguage process. Corroborating this view, Tarone (1994: 1715) points out: “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.”
Tarone’s claim is worth noting for its strong implication that fossilization is inevitable, and that it is what characterizes the ultimate attainment of every learner.
Summing up: fossilization – in the eyes of many – is a product as well as a process; it affects the entire IL system as well as its sub-systems; it is literally permanent as well as relatively permanent; it is persistent and resistant; for some researchers it happens to every learner and for others to only some learners (for a detailed discussion of these positions, see Han 1998). It is a stage of interlanguage learning, therefore incorporating the fossilization of correct as well as of incorrect forms (e.g. R. Ellis 1985; Vigil and Oller 1976). It is externally manifested as well as internally determined. Furthermore, it is suggested that fossilization may represent the ultimate outcome of L2 learning (e.g. Tarone 1994).
The suggested causal variables include but are not limited to:
• lack of instruction (e.g. Krashen and Seliger 1975, 1976; Schmidt 1983)
• absence of corrective feedback (e.g. Higgs and Clifford 1982; Lightbown
and Spada 1999; Tomasello and Herron 1988; Vigil and Oller 1976; Valette
• satisfaction of communicative needs (e.g. Corder 1978, 1983; R. Ellis 1985;
Klein 1986; Klein and Perdue 1993; Kowal and Swain 1997; Selinker and
Lamendella 1978; Wong-Fillmore 2002)
• age (passim the SLA literature)
• lack of written input (e.g. Schmidt 1983; VanPatten 1988)
• false automatization (Hulstijn 1989, 2002a)
• end of sensitivity to language data (Schnitzer 1993)
• lack of access to UG learning principles (White 1996)
• learning inhibits learning5 (Elman et al. 1996)
• language transfer (e.g. Han 2000; Jain 1974; Kellerman 1989; Major 2002;
Selinker and Lakshmanan 1992).
In brief, over the years, the term fossilization has come to be associated
with a wide range of variables, exhibiting divergent interpretations of the
construct. The lack of uniformity in the conceptualization and application of
the notion, while creating confusion, points to, among other things, the fact
that fossilization is no longer a monolithic concept as it was in its initial
postulation, but rather a complex construct intricately tied up with varied
manifestations of failure.
It is important to note that the various theoretical and empirical attempts
made over the years have resulted more in conceptual diversity than uniformity,
though all recognize fossilization as a central characteristic of SLA.
The differences seem to center around four issues: (1) whether fossilization
is global or local; (2) whether L2 ultimate attainment is isomorphic with
fossilization; and (3) whether fossilization is a product or a process, and
(4) whether stabilization and fossilization are synonymous.
The preponderance of the available empirical evidence points instead to local fossilization (Han 2003a,b, 2004); that is, fossilization only hits certain linguistic features in certain subsystems of the interlanguage of individual learners, while other linguistic features in the same subsystems are successfully acquired or continue to evolve.
Success in this context, in the view of some researchers, means complete mastery of a second language, namely, the attaining of “all levels of linguistic structure and in all discourse domains” (Selinker and Lamendella 1978: 373; see also Sharwood Smith’s 1997 SLART-L on-line communication). The general lack of such success is characteristically seen to reside in the imbalance between the rate of success and the rate of failure.8 Over the years, the 5% success rate proposed by Selinker (1972) has been widely quoted. Some argue that this figure is too conservative (Birdsong 1999, 2004; Seliger, Krashen and Ladefoged 1975), while others claim that even 5% is a gross overestimate (Long 1990; Gregg 1996).9 If we follow Gregg’s (1996: 52) speculative argument that “truly native-like competence in an L2 is never attained”, there can be no question of any imbalance since no learner would ever achieve perfect mastery of an L2 (cf. Sorace 1993). Still other researchers (e.g. Kellerman 1995) who quote the 5% figure do so merely as a general recognition of the fact that there is overwhelmingly more failure than success in adult L2 acquisition.
In the SLA literature, it is also worth noting, there exist different views on what success should entail. As mentioned, for some, success means complete mastery of every facet of the L2; for others (e.g. Schachter 1996), however, it means achieving only native-like competence in the core grammar of L2 without taking account of linguistic peripherals. Despite the lack of consensus, the point nevertheless remains that in whichever sense, complete success is not achievable in post-adolescent L2 acquisition. This claim has gained considerable support from studies of ultimate attainment in so-called “near-natives” (e.g. Coppieters 1987; Sorace 1993).10 Although they each focused only on a small number of linguistic subsystems, Coppieters (1987) and Sorace (1993) both present convincing evidence of the existence
of a significant gap, assumed to be permanent, between the interlanguage grammar and the mature native grammar.
Counterevidence, to a lesser extent, is also available (Birdsong 1992; Bongaerts 1999; Ioup et al. 1994; White and Genesee 1996). White and Genesee(1996), for instance, come to the conclusion that it is possible for adult L2 learners to acquire native-like competence. Birdsong (1992), on the other hand, offers mixed evidence from his subjects showing that with some subsystems complete mastery is possible, whereas with other sub-systems it is not.
Similarly, Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson (2001: 164) note:
The ultimate attainment of individual L2 learners varies enormously in its approximation to nativelike proficiency, although some individuals may reach very high levels of proficiency and in some cases even pass as native speakers."