Learning a Second Language? Don't get fossilized!

Posted by Your Language Coach Cairns on January 31, 2013

Learning a Second Language? Don't get fossilized!

Fossilization in Second Language Acquisition:

Nature of the phenomenon and its implications on Second Language Acquisition


The fundamental question, underlying every aspect of the phenomenon of Fossilization, is whether or not adult learners can ever achieve native likeness in their L2. While some researchers have long talked about the impossibility of reaching native like command in a second language (Gregg 1996 and Long 1990)[i], others argue that there is in fact a meaningful size of L2 learners who do attain native likeness (see. E.g. Birdsong, 1999, 2004). “The ultimate attainment of L2, if there is such a thing, thus shows two facets: success and failure”, Hahn[ii] states. As for the latter, while there are numerous reasons why learners would fail to achieve native like command in their L2, this Essay will be concerned with one type of non-learning: the construct of fossilization.

Nature of the Phenomenon

In 1972, Selinker and Lamendella provided the following explicit definition:

“Fossilization is the permanent cessation of IL learning before the learner has attained target language norms at all levels of linguistic structure and in all discourse domains in spite of the learner’s positive ability, opportunity or motivation to learn and acculturate into target language society”[iii].

We can derive several properties from this earliest definition of Fossilization: 1) The structures that are allegedly fossilized are persistent. 2) External influences are present but ineffective. 3) Fossilizable structures account for ‘all levels of linguistic structure’ and ‘all discourse domains’. 4) As the role of the learner’s cognitive abilities as well as ample motivation and opportunity is played down, the inevitability and resulting innateness of the phenomenon is made apparent.[iv]

Since Selinker’s postulation of the phenomenon, SLA literature has brought forth numerous definitions, views and conceptions concerning both the scope and nature of Fossilization. To make a note of all of them goes beyond the scope of this essay. In the light of the ‘inevitability’ of the phenomenon however, amongst all of the claims that have been made, Tarone’s is worth noting:

“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 1994:1715)[v]

This statement implies that fossilization is an ultimate stage in the interlanguage process of every learner and thus, Hahn (2004) concludes, “fossilization is (…) taken to be ‘permanent stabilization’”[vi]

In the light of the various conceptions and keeping in mind that Hahn states that “to date, there is no uniform answer”[vii] to the question what exactly Fossilization is, we are able to deduce several features: (1) Fossilization involves premature cessation of development in defiance of optimal learning conditions; and (2) fossilizable structures are persistent over time, against any environmental influences, including consistent natural exposure to the target language and pedagogic interventions.[viii]

At this point it should be mentioned that any of the above stated definitions are fallible to a certain degree as they all raise two significant further, to date unanswered questions: 1) If fossilization is innate and therefore inevitable, then what are the processes that account for this innate “mechanism”[ix] and how and when is this mechanism activated? (See Han[x]). 2) Assuming a)that we cannot treat Fossilization in an isolated manner but having to relate it directly to stabilization, and assuming b) that the only difference between stabilization and fossilization is “permanence” (see Long[xi]) then what remains to be proven is how ‘permanent’ stabilization has to be and for how long before it qualifies for fossilization?

This very question leads us to another key issue surrounding the nature of fossilization:

Is fossilization a process or a product?

Before we can draw a conclusion, we have to consider the following underlying question: Do we approach fossilization from a cognitive perspective, a phenomenological perspective, or one that combines both?  In this assignment, I take the phenomenological point of view: Under such a phenomenological approach, I assume that Fossilization manifests itself as the state of “permanently frozen development”[xii], whether globally or locally (see below). As such, fossilization clearly points towards the qualities of a product and not a process. (See Han 2005) Definitions such as “(fossilization is) the long term persistence of plateaus of non-target-like structures in the interlanguage of non-native speakers…” (Selinker and Lakshmanan, 1992:197)[xiii]  have contributed towards the view of fossilization  as a product.

Given that, in order to proof that Fossilization is in fact a product as Selinker and Lakshmanan’s postulation indeed suggests, we will have to demonstrate that the structure or item in question has completely ceased developing. Fossilization researchers have made frequent attempts at locating and documenting allegedly fossilized structures, however, to date there is an absence of empirically conducted evidence of precisely such. (See Han 2005)

In the light of the above, we are then somewhat forced to conceptualize fossilization, if for now, as a process and not as a product as initially assumed. (See Long 2005, Han 2004)

Taking on the process-perspective, “fossilization does not necessarily require the absence of development in a particular area”[xiv] rather, we now have the freedom to use the term ‘fossilization’ when referring to a tendency towards the cessation of development.

Is Fossilization global or local

Again, the stumbling block to answering this question is the lack of evidence. That is, as long as the scope of putative fossilization remains unspecified (see. Long 2005), the question of whether Fossilization is global or local remains debatable. Considering SLA literature uses terms such as “fossilized errors” on one hand but ‘fossilized learners’, ‘fossilized ILs’ and ‘fossilized IL systems’ on the other, it becomes clear that we’re in desperate need of a decisive definition. My personal belief goes in hand with Selinker and Douglas (1985, 1989[xv]), according to whom a structure can be both “fossilized in one  discourse domain while still developing in another”. While this opens up another array of questions as to what exactly a “discourse domain” is, it is at this stage fair to believe that Selinker and Douglas’ statement points heavily towards fossilization being local. Hahn supports this by stating that “empirical evidence has been pointing to local fossilization (…)”[xvi]. Additionally, while global fossilization to date is “assumed rather than established” [xvii] and considering that fossilization can be found in particular subsystems (e.g. Syntax) or even in a particular feature (e.g. Present tense 3rd person singular s- marking), it seems only logical to conclude that Fossilization is a phenomenon that applies itself locally. This gives rise to the question whether the term “Fossilization” is somewhat unbefitting as the term itself suggests the phenomenon to be of “global” nature considering it is described to be the “permanent cessation of IL learning (…)” (Selinker and Lamendella 1978, emphasis added).

Implications on SLA Theories

The concept of fossilization has, ever since Selinker (1972) postulated his earliest definitions of the phenomenon, received such wide recognition that it has been entered in the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1987). It has attracted significant interest among SLA researchers and has engendered considerable differences of opinion, the discussion of which would go beyond the scope of this essay. What is worthy of noting however, is that all opinions have one thing in common:  Fossilization on every level is so intrinsically related to Inter Language and Target Language, that it’s investigation and research has direct implications on major SLA theories.

Following this train of thought and keeping in mind the nature of the phenomenon, what types of problems does it present for different SLA theories? And what can and can’t various SLA theories explain about fossilization?


·         The Fundamental Difference Hypothesis, postulates that, with regards to language learning, the acquisition of L1 is fundamentally different to the acquisition/learning of L2. “In second language acquisition, not only is “complete” knowledge not always attained, it is rarely, if ever attained.”[xviii] Fossilization, we can conclude, supports the FDH to the extent that it serves as an explanation as to why the realization of TL norms in L2 acquisition remains an impossibility.

·         Fossilization poses a significant problem for the L1=L2 Hypothesis, claiming “a second language is acquired in the same manner as a first language”[xix].  If that was indeed the case, why has neither fossilization, nor stabilization been observed in child language acquisition?

·         The Acculturation Model, being based on the notion that, in order for successful learning to take place, “learners need to adapt to the target language culture”,[xx] needs revising, since fossilization occurs irrespective of whether acculturation into TL culture has taken place.  In other words, if proper acculturation was as pivotal as the model portrays it to be, then fossilization would not be observed so frequently.

·         The Creative Construction Hypothesis, proposing that “child second language learners construct rules of the second language on the basis of innate mechanisms”[xxi] can at least suffice for one explanation as to why fossilization is not generally observed in Child L2 Acquisition, but is rather a phenomenon that regularly and extensively occurs in Adult L2 Acquisition. The Creative Construction Hypothesis then explains the phenomenon of fossilization and vice versa.

·         Another SLA theory that goes hand in hand with the phenomenon of fossilization is the Critical Period Hypothesis. The question arises as to whether fossilization only starts taking place after a L2 learner has reached the end of the critical or sensitive period or whether the phenomenon can also be observed, possibly by way of stabilization during the critical period.

·         Since to date, we have no putative evidence that fossilization has taken place, it is impossible to know when we are confronted with a fossilized/stabilized grammar. This has far reaching consequences on the Theory of UG principles as we have no way of determining whether UG principles are violated or permanently not followed, the knowledge of which is crucial as it directly determines whether UG principles constrain L2 grammars or not. UG researchers consequently rely on the results of longitudinal data collected by fossilization researchers to come to a conclusive statement about the extent to which UG principles affect second language grammars.



Fossilization, though extensively discussed and researched, has rarely been sufficiently explained and thus, remains a “phenomenon”. On the level of research and theory, there appears to be little consensus regarding what fossilization is and how it can be described empirically.


Apart from this most obvious point of critique, there is the rather hard -to-swallow truth that evidence of fossilization may never be established since the very target to which development or non-development should be measured against isn’t a constant. Larsen –Freeman[xxii], for example, takes a very strong view on this particular topic:


“What if we acknowledge, instead, that there is no end state because, first of all, there is no end? There is no finite uniformity to conform to. When we entertain a view of language as a dynamic complex adaptive system, (…)we recognize that every use of language changes its resources , and the changed resources are then available for use in the next speech event.”

In agreeing with Larsen-Freeman, I do believe that fossilization research would benefit from ‘acknowledging’ that the linguistic system that is to be acquired has at its roots an inherent variability. That is, the very term ‘Target Language’ by which all acquisition or non-acquisition is referenced, remains undefined. Lewis(1993:160) adds that “the notion of a definable target is an idealization anyway as there is no such thing as a homogeneous speech community”[xxiii].

Whether or not a clear and unified definition of the term ‘Target Language’ can ever be achieved, it should by now be clear that arriving at such a definition will also hold the key to arriving at a clear definition of what ‘Fossilization’ is.


[i] Gregg 1996 and Long 1990 in Han, Zhao Hong, Multilingual Matters, Clevedon, SLA Periodical

[ii] Han, ZhaoHong, Studies of Fossilization in Second Language Acquisition, p.2, emphasis added

[iii] (Selinker and Lamendella, 1978, p.187 cited in M. H. Long, Stabilization and Fossilization in Interlanguage Development)

[iv] Han, ZhaoHong, Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition, 2004, page 15

[v] Tarone 1994:1715 in Han, ZhaoHong , Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition, page 18

[vi] Han, ZhaoHong , Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition, 2004 page 18

[vii] Han, ZhaoHong, Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition, 2004

[viii] Han, Zhao Hong, Studies of Fossilization in Second Language Acquisition, Clevedon : Multilingual Matters, 2005 (SLA periodical)

[ix] Han, ZhaoHong , Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition, 2004, page 20

[x] Han, ZhaoHong, Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition, 2004

[xi] Long, Stabilization and Fossilization in Interlanguage Development, page 489 in The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition, Catherine J. Doughty and Michael H. Long, 2005


[xii] Fidler, Ashley,  Second Language Research 22,3 (2006); pp. 398–411, Review article: Reconceptualizing fossilization in second language acquisition: a review, 2006

[xiii] Selinker, L. & Lakshmanan, U. (1992) Language transfer and fossilization: The multiple

effects principle. In S. Gass & L. Selinker (eds.), Language Transfer in Language Learning (pp. 197-216), Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

[xiv] Fidler, Ashley,  Second Language Research 22,3 (2006); pp. 398–411, Review article: Reconceptualizing fossilization in second language acquisition: a review, 2006

[xv] Douglas, D. and Selinker, L. 1985: Principle for Language Tests within the discourse domain theory of interlanguage: Research, Test construction and interpretation, 1985, in Long, Stabilization and Fossilization in Interlanguage Development, page 490

[xvi] ZhaoHong, Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition, p.21

[xvii] ZhaoHong, Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition, p.22

[xviii] Second Language Acquisition Gass, Susan M. and Selinker, Larry, 2008, page 164

[xix] Second Language Acquisition Gass, Susan M. and Selinker, Larry, 2008, page 519

[xx]  Second Language Acquisition Gass, Susan M. and Selinker, Larry, 2008, page 514

[xxi] Second Language Acquisition Gass, Susan M. and Selinker, Larry, 2008, page 516

[xxii] Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997) Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition, Applied Linguistics 19(2), 141-65 in Fidler, A. (2006). Reconceptualizing fossilization in second language acquisition: a review, Second Language Research 22(3), 398-411.

[xxiii] Lewis, M. The Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching in ZhaoHong, Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition, p.170



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