Fossilization in language learning

Official definition of fossilization:

Fossilization may be defined as “The point at which no further learning appears possible, with the student’s performance apparently impervious to both exposure to English and explicit error correction (i.e.: ‘set in stone’).”Why do some students fossilize, especially after what is generally referred to as the critical period? Here’s my take.

1. Fossilization in language learning may occur when students feel their communicative needs have already been met (“I can get by so why bother” syndrome). Carelessly-implemented task-based / communicative methodologies can encourage this sort of attitude.

2. Students who don’t value accuracy may also fossilize more quickly. This sort of attitude may or may not be related to their learning style, especially field dependence and field independence.

3. Students who are resistant to the target culture are more likely to fossilize. There are quite a few interesting studies about Spanish-speaking immigrants in the US who failed to learn the language after twenty, thirty years immersed in the target culture. In other words, fossilization in language learning might well be culture-related.

4. Fossilization also correlates with the absence of corrective feedback. Students who receive little or no corrective feedback from the teacher are more likely to fossilize. Having said that, there are very few reliable studies showing that oral correction can be beneficial to long-term language acquisition.

5. The communicative classroom may well lead to fossilization. Students who are exposed to a steady supply of faulty interlanguage (especially in class, during pair and group work) without corrective feedback, month after month, are more likely to fossilize.

Thanks for reading.

5 thoughts on “Fossilization in language learning”

  1. Hi Luis, I definitely agree with number 2. From a neurolinguistic perspective, some students tend to favor ONLY meaning over accuracy. It seems to be that sounding wrong does not bother them the least.
    Rick Nishioka

  2. Luiz Otávio Barros says:

    Thanks for writing, Rick!
    Yep. And I would go as far as to say that some (and I say some) of the students we're referring to don't even notice when they're sounding wrong.

  3. Anonymous says:

    These are all very good reasons for fossilization, definitely. After all, enough is enough when a student needs to 'communicate'. I've once had a boss questioning me why should I bother to refer to grammar explanations when practicing word formation… For a group of advanced students, that wasn't communicative enough.
    To what extent do the institutions agree to back us up when it comes to accuracy? How marketable is it to sell a course that prevents fossilization from happening?…
    I wonder… Very few people do really know how much more can be learnt than the 'enough'.

  4. Luiz Otávio Barros says:

    Very good point, anonymous. You're talking about the inherent tension between getting things done in English and getting things done WELL in English.
    I'm not sure, however, that the use of grammar terminology (your parts of speech example) has a role to play in the whole fossilize / don't fossilize issue. That's something to think about.

  5. Luan Pham says:

    Luiz, could you please add references to your arguments so that I as well as others can further read about each?

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