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A General Review of Causal Factors of Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition

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A General Review of Causal factors of Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition

  • Abstract

It has been widely accepted that language fossilization is a vital obstacle for L2 learners. A great many studies have been conducted on its nature and root causes. This paper is designed to present a general review of the causal factors of fossilization and provide certain insights for studies on fossilization. The paper begins with the introduction of various definitions of fossilization. Causes of fossilization proposed by several SLA scholars are then presented. The author attempts to analyze the major two alternatives, namely critical period and language transfer, and examine its linkage with fossilization. The author draws a tentative conclusion that critical period and language transfer function as two major causes of fossilization while environmental, social and psychological factors also play a role.

Key words: fossilization; language transfer; critical period

  • Introduction

American linguistic Selinker firstly raised the concept of interlanguage (IL) in the context of an article called Language Transfer. He (Interlanguage 214) noticed the “existence of a separate linguistic system which results from a learner's attempted production of a TL norm.” In 1972, he formally put forward the concept of fossilization in Interlanguage. Ever since then, it has drawn wide attention as a core issue in SLA research.

  • Literature review
  1. Definition of fossilization

Selinker introduced the term “fossilization” to the field of SLA in 1972 and used it to describe the phenomenon that the major part of second-language learners fail to achieve native-speaker competence. Fossilization was both referred to as a cognitive mechanism and performance-related structural notion and defined as “mechanism which also exists in this latent psychological structure and underlies surface linguistic material which speakers will tend to keep in their IL productive performance, no matter what the age of the learner or the amount of instruction he receives in the TL.” (Selinker, Interlanguage 229)

Since 1972, the notion of fossilization witnessed a continuous abstraction and expansion in scope. In 1978, Selinker and Lamendella defined it as “a permanent cessation of IL learning before the leaner has attained TL norms at all levels of linguistic structure and in all discourse domains in spite of the learner’s positive ability, opportunity, and motivation to learn and acculturate into target society”. (187)

Other interpretations of fossilization were also presented over the past thirty years. Lowther (127), for example, defined fossilization as “the inability of a person to attain native-like ability in the target language.” This is in contrary to the definition proposed by Ellis (48), who pointed out that “fossilized structures can be realized as errors or as correct target language norms.” In other words, fossilization resulted in either fossilized errors or fossilized target-forms, not exactly a kind of inability proposed by Lowther. However, most researchers are for the definition that exclusively refers to non-target-like forms. In line with Selinker’s view, here fossilization was construed as incorrect or deviant forms.

  1. Causal factors of fossilization

Selinker (Interlanguage 216) summarized five process in which fossilization take place. They are language transfer, transfer of training, strategies of second-language learning, strategies of second-language communication and overgeneralization of TL.

If it can be experimentally demonstrated that fossilizable items, rules, and subsystems which occur in IL performance are a result of the NL, then we are dealing with the process of language transfer. (Selinker, Interlanguage 216) Selinker made a more clear statement that “the basic concept of transfer in SLA research is that, when you learn a second language, you transfer some or all of the properties of the L1 into the L2” (Rediscovering interlanguage 29). Native language (L1) transfer has been a perennial issue in SLA research and will be further discussed in microanalysis part.

Transfer of training will happen when textbooks and teachers in certain interlingual situation almost always present drills with wrong use of certain and never with the correct ones. On the other hand, the improper use of language material may also cause a transfer of training.

Strategies of second-language learning are a result of an identifiable approach by the learner to the material to be learned. (Selinker, Interlanguage 216) One example of a strategy of second-language learning that is widespread in many interlingual situations is a tendency on the part of learners to reduce the TL to a simpler system.

Strategies of second-language communication, in which speakers may consider a form such as the English plural "was not necessary for the kind of communicating they used". (Selinker, Interlanguage 220)

Overgeneralization refers to the process in which the learners try to generalize a certain use of L2 rules and semantic features and apply it in ways which does not permit, as in the example " after thinking little I decided to start on the bicycle as slowly as I could as it was not possible to drive fast.” It was clear that the speaker generalized the use of drive and applied it into other transportation tools besides cars.

Selinker pointed out that there are other factors associated with fossilization beyond the above central processes. For example, spelling pronunciation happens to speakers of many languages pronounce final –er on English words as [ε] plus some form of r. Cognate pronunciation occurs when English athlete pronounced as [atlit] by many Frenchmen whether or not they can produce [θ] in other English words. (Selinker, Interlanguage 221)

In answering why do learners fail to achieve full target language competence, Ellis (121) pointed out that three principle components need to be considered:(1) social factors/settings, (2) language processing mechanisms, and (3) individual learners factors. He also pointed out that there are internal causes and external causes of interlanguage fossilization. Internal causes include the factors of age, and lack of desire to combine with the culture of the target language; while external causes involve the factors of communicative pressure, lack of study.

Selinker’s student, Han summarized over 50 tentative explanations of fossilization and suggested that both external and internal factors contribute to fossilization. External factors basically refer to the environmental one. Internal factors can be further divided into cognitive, neuro-biological and socio-affective ones. Cognitive factors include those concerned with knowledge representation, knowledge processing and psychological processes. She (44) pointed out that adult L2 learners are universally preconditioned to fossilization and two major lines of research — the critical period effects and the NL influence — are drawn to bear on the argument. Lots of studies have been done on the two hypotheses in regarding to explain fossilization and are showed as following.

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