Interlanguage fossilization

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Interlanguage fossilization is a stage second-language acquisition. When mastering a target language (TL), second language (L2) learners develop a linguistic system that is self-contained and different from both the learner’s first language (L1) and the TL (Nemser, 1971). This linguistic system has been variously called interlanguage (IL) (Selinker, 1972), approximative system (Nemser, 1971), idiosyncratic dialects or transitional dialects (Corder, 1971), etc.


According to Corder (Corder,1981), this temporary and changing grammatical system, IL, which is constructed by the learner, approximates the grammatical system of the TL. In the process of L2 acquisition, IL continually evolves into an ever-closer approximation of the TL, and ideally should advance gradually until it becomes equivalent, or nearly equivalent, to the TL. However, during the L2 learning process, an IL may reach one or more temporary restricting phases when its development appears to be detained (Nemser, 1971; Selinker, 1972; Schumann, 1975). A permanent cessation of progress toward the TL has been referred to as fossilization (Selinker, 1972). This linguistic phenomenon, IL fossilization, can occur despite all reasonable attempts at learning (Selinker, 1972). Fossilization includes those items, rules, and sub-systems that L2 learners tend to retain in their IL, that is, all those aspects of IL that become entrenched and permanent, and that the majority of L2 learners can only eliminate with considerable effort (Omaggio, 2001). Moreover, it has also been noticed that this occurs particularly in adult L2 learners’ IL systems (Nemser, 1971; Selinker, 1972, Selinker & Lamendella, 1980.).


Selinker (1972) suggests that the most important distinguishing factor related to L2 acquisition is the phenomenon of fossilization. However, both his explanation that “fossilizable linguistic phenomena are linguistic items, rules, and subsystems which speakers of a particular native language will tend to keep in their interlanguage relative to a particular target language, no matter what the age of the learner or amount of explanation or instruction he receives in the target language” (Selinker, 1972, p. 215) and his hypotheses on IL fossilization are fascinating in that they contradict our basic understanding of the human capacity to learn. How is it that some learners can overcome IL fossilization, even if they only constitute, according to Selinker, “a mere 5%” (1972, p. 212), while the majority of L2 learners cannot, ‘no matter what the age or amount of explanation or instruction’? Or is it perhaps not that they cannot overcome fossilization, but that they will not? Does complacency set in after L2 learners begin to communicate, as far as they are concerned, effectively enough, in the TL, and as a result does motivation to achieve native-like competence diminish?

The concept of fossilization in SLA research is so intrinsically related to IL that Selinker (1972) considers it to be a fundamental phenomenon of all SLA and not just to adult learners. Fossilization has received such wide recognition that it has been entered in the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1987). Selinker’s concept of fossilization is similar to that of Tarone (1976), Nemser (1971), and Sridhar (1980), all of whom attempted to explore the causes of fossilization in L2 learners’ IL.

Fossilization has attracted considerable interest among researchers and has engendered significant differences of opinion. The term, borrowed from the field of paleontology, conjures up an image of dinosaurs being enclosed in residue and becoming a set of hardened remains encased in sediment. The metaphor, as used in SLA literature, is appropriate because it refers to earlier language forms that become encased in a learner’s IL and that, theoretically, cannot be changed by special attention or practice of the TL. Despite debate over the degree of permanence, fossilization is generally accepted as a fact of life in the process of SLA.


Many researchers have attempted to explain this (Adjemian, 1976; Corder, 1971, 1978; De Prada Creo, 1990; Nakuma, 1998; Selinker, 1972; Nemser, 1971; Schumann, 1976, 1978a, 1978b, 1990). Workers have attempted to discover: 1) why fossilization occurs (Adjemian, 1976, Naiman, et al., 1996; Schumann, 1976, 1978a, 1978b, 1990; Seliger, 1978; Stern, 1975; Virgil & Oller, 1976); 2) the precipitating conditions (Schumann, 1976, 1978a, 1978b, 1990; Virgil & Oller, 1976); 3) what kind of linguistic material is likely to be fossilized (Selinker & Lakshamanan 1992; Todeva, 1992); and 4) what type of learners are more prone to fossilize (Adjemian, 1976; Scovel, 1969, 1978, 1988, 2000; Selinker, Swain & Dumas, 1975; Virgil & Oller, 1976). However, there has been almost no investigation by SLA theorists on the possibilities of preventing or overcoming fossilization, and little explanation related to those adult L2 learners who overcome one or more ‘areas of stability’ in IL—those learners whose IL does not fossilize, and who reach a high level of proficiency in the L2 (Acton, 1984; Birdsong, 1992; Bongaerts, et al., 1997; Ioup, Boustagui, El Tigi, & Mosell, 1994; Selinker, 1972).

One factor of obvious relevance is motivation, and studies have been conducted regarding motivation to learning L2 (Gardner, 1988; Gardner & Smythe, 1975; Schumann. 1976, 1978a, l978b), and the relationship of fossilization to the learner’s communicative needs (Corder, 1978; Nickel, 1998; Ushioda, 1993). Arguments have emerged regarding adult learners’ general lack of empathy with TL native speakers and culture. According to Guiora et al. (1972), adults do not have the motivation to change their accent and to acquire native-like pronunciation. Unlike children, who are generally more open to TL culture, adults have more rigid language ego boundaries. Thus, adults may be inclined to establishing their pre-existing cultural and ethnic identity, and this they do by maintaining their stereotypical accent (Guiora et al., 1972). Notwithstanding this, there is a lack of needed research, particularly regarding achievement motivation, especially considering that fossilization can be considered the most distinctive characteristic of adult SLA.

See also[edit]



The text of this article is taken with permission from The Role of Achievement Motivation on the Interlanguage Fossilization of Middle-Aged English-as-a-Second-Language Learners by Dr. Zoran Vujisić (2007).

Further reading[edit]

  • Acton, W. (1984). Changing fossilized pronunciation. TESOL Quarterly, 18, (1), 71-85.
  • Adjemian, C. (1976). On the nature of interlanguage systems. Language Learning, 26,(2), 297-320.
  • Birdsong, D. (1992). Ultimate attainment in second language acquisition. Aneuaee, 68, (4), 706-755.
  • Bongaerts, T. (1999). Ultimate attainment in L2 pronunciation: The case of very advanced late L2 learners. In David Birdsong (Ed.), Second language acquisition and the critical period hypothesis. Mawah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Corder, S. P. (1971). Idiosyncratic dialects and error analysis. IRAL, 9, (2), 147-160.
  • Corder, S. P. (1978). Language-learner language. In J. C. Richards (Ed), Understanding second and foreign language learning (pp. 71-92). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
  • Corder, S. P. (1981). Error analysis and interlanguage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • De Prada Creo, E. (1990). The Process of fossilization in interlanguage. (Paper presented at the 9th annual meeting of the World Congress of Applied Linguistics, sponsored by the International Association for Applied Linguistics, Thessaloniki, Greece, April 15?25, 1990).(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 362 012).
  • Gardner, R. C. (1988). Attitudes and motivation. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 9, 135-148.
  • Gardner, R. C., & Smythe, P. C. (1975). Motivation and second language acquisition. Canadian Modern Language Review, 31, (3), 218-230.
  • Guiora, A., Beit-Hallahmi, B., & Brannon, R. (1972). The effects of experimentally induced changes in ego status on pronunciation ability in a second language: An exploratory study. Comprehensive Psychiatry 13, 421-428.
  • Han, Z. (2004). Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Ioup, G., Boustagui, E., El Tigi, M., & Mosell, M. (1994). Reexamining the critical period hypothesis. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 16, 73 – 98.
  • Naiman, N., Frohlich, M., Stem. H. H., & Todesco, A. (1996). The good language learner. Clevedon, Avon. England: Multilingual Matters.
  • Nakuma, C. (1998). A new theoretical account of “fossilization”: Implications for L2 attrition research. IRAL, 36, (3), 247-257.
  • Nemser, W. (1971). Approximative systems of foreign language learners. IRAL, 9, (2), 115-124.
  • Nickel, G. (1998). The role of interlanguage in foreign language teaching. IRAL, 35, (1), 1-10.
  • Omaggio, A. (2001). Teaching language in context. Proficiency oriented instruction. (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Heinle & Hainle Publishers.
  • Schumann, J. H. (1975). Affective factors and the problem of age in second language acquisition. Language Learning 25, 205-235.
  • Schumann, J. H. (1976a). Second language acquisition research: Getting a more global look at the learner. In Brown, H. (Ed.), Papers in second language acquisition, language learning. Special Issue 4. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan State University.
  • Schumann, J. H. (1976b). Second language acquisition: the pidginization hypothesis. Language Learning, 26, (2), 391-408.
  • Schumann, J. H. (1978a). Social and psychological factors in second language acquisition. In J. C. Richards (Ed.), Understanding second & foreign language learning (pp. 163-178). Rowley, MA: Newbury House Publishers.
  • Schumann, J. H. (1978b). The pidginization process: A model for second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
  • Schumann, J. H. (1990). Extending the scope of the acculturation/pidginization model to include cognition. TESOL Quarterly, 24, 667-684.
  • Scovel, T. (1969). Foreign accents, language acquisition, and cerebral dominance. Language Learning, 19, (3 & 4), 245-253.
  • Scovel, T. (1978). The effect of affect on foreign language learning: A review of the anxiety research. Language Learning, 28, (1), 129-142.
  • Scovel, T. (1982), Questions concerning the application of neurolinguistic research to second language learning/teaching. TESOL Quarterly 16, 323-331.
  • Scovel, T. (1988). A time to speak: A psycholinguistic inquiry into the critical period for human speech. New York, NY: Newbury House/ Harper & Row.
  • Scovel, T. (2000). A critical review of the critical period research. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 20, 213-223.
  • Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. IRAL, 10, (3), 209-231.
  • Selinker, L., & Lakshamanan, U. (1992). Language transfer and fossilization: The “Multiple Effects Principle”. In S. M. Gass, & L. Selinker (Eds.), Language transfer in language learning (pp. 197-216). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Selinker, L., & Lamendella, J. T. (1980). Fossilization in interlanguage learning. In K. Croft (Ed.), Reading on English as a second language (pp. 132-143). Boston. MA: Little, Brown and Company.
  • Selinker, L., Swain, M., & Dumas, G. (1975). The interlanguage hypothesis extended to children. Language Learning, 25, (1), 139-152.
  • Sridhar, S. N. (1980). Contrastive analysis, error analysis, and interlangauge. In Croft, K. (Ed.), Readings on English as a second language. Cambridge, Mass: Winthrop.
  • Stern, H. H. (1975). What can we learn from the good language learner? The Canadian Modern Language Review, 31, (4), 304-318.
  • Tarone, E. (1976). The phonology of interlanguage. In J.C. Richards (Ed.),Understanding second and foreign language learning: Issues and approaches. Rowley, MA: Newbury House Publishers.
  • Todeva, E. (1992). On fossilization in SLA theory. PALM (Papers in Applied Linguistics –Michigan), 7, 216-254.
  • Ushioda, E. (1993). Acculturation theory and linguistic fossilization: A comparative case study. CLCS Occasional Paper No. 31. Dublin, Ireland: Centre for Language and Communication Studies; 56pp. (ERIC Document Reproduction Services No. ED 368 172).
  • Vigil, N. A., & Oller, J. W. (1976). Rule fossilization: a tentative model. Language Learning, 26, (2), 281-295.