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Interlanguage fossilization is a stage during 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.
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).
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