Tag Archives: fossilization

Fatal attractors

sauleda 01Me, in a pastelería (cake shop)

¿Qué es eso?


Ese pastel, allí.

Tarta de manzana.

¿Y aquella aquí… ¿Qué lleva?


Si, quiero una de este.

Which translates, more or less, as:

What is that?


This cake, over there.

Apple tart.

And that one here, what’s in it?


Yes, I want of one of this.

The translation is meant to convey the fact that the demonstratives (eso, ese, aquella, etc) are all over the place – literally – and only accidentally coincide with where I’m pointing, and with the gender or number of the thing pointed at. And, more tellingly, were I to have the same conversation again tomorrow, I might well use a whole different combination, plucked off the shelf, as it were, in a similarly random fashion.

This is as good an instance as any of how my Spanish, or pockets of it, functions in a state of ‘free variation’.

At some point, I must have been aware of the range of choices available for identifying objects near to me, near to you, and distant from both of us, and how these demonstrative adjectives and pronouns are also sensitive to number and gender, such that any decision to use one requires making a selection from 15 different options (see table below).

Understandably, I resisted learning the rules of a system that seemed impossibly complicated (three deictic points, three genders, as well as singular and plural). Instead I simply pulled demonstratives out of a hat, applying them indiscriminately, and sometimes throwing in a Catalan one for good measure. Of course, the physical context of the situations in which these items are typically used meant that pointing and eye-gaze made up for whatever incoherence resulted from my capricious grammar. Hence, there was little or no feedback as a result of miscommunication. I got the cakes I wanted.

pastelesAnd so the system (or lack of system) became entrenched. The same thing, more or less happened with past tense forms, with dependent prepositions, with clitic pronouns, with por and para, and with ser and estar. There are even sets of like-sounding words that I also deploy in free variation, the verbs planear, plantear, plantar, and planificar being a case in point. These wildly chaotic sub-systems seem to co-exist alongside other systems that are relatively stable.

In complexity theory, the fluctuations between relative stability and instability within dynamic systems are well attested. As Lewin (1993. 20-21) puts it:

Most complex systems exhibit what mathematicians call attractors, states to which the system eventually settles, depending on the properties of the system. Imagine floating in a rough and dangerous sea, one swirling around rocks and inlets. Whirlpools become established, depending on the topography of the seabed and the flow of water. Eventually, you will be drawn into one of these vortexes. There you stay until some major perturbation, or change in the flow of water, pushes you out, only to be sucked into another. This, crudely, is how one might view a dynamical system with multiple attractors.

Language learning is similarly ‘chaotic’: as Larsen-Freeman (2006: 592) notes, ‘There are no discrete stages in which learners’ performance is invariant’. And she adds (p. 593) ‘Learners do not progress through stages of development in a consistent manner. There is a great deal of variation at one time in learners’ performances and clear instability over time’.

The transition from one attractor state to another is called a phase shift, and one definition of fossilization might be ‘the absence of phase shifts’. Thus, Ellis (1999: 472) argues that ‘fossilization arises when learners fail to resolve the inherent variation in their interlanguage’. Witness my demonstratives.

But proponents of complexity theory would argue that any such stasis is an illusion: there is no permanent ‘end state’ in evolving, dynamic systems.  Hence ‘if there is no end state to language, it may be unhelpful to think in terms of fossilization as an end state to second language learning’ (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008: 10).

In a study of five Chinese learners of English, Larsen-Freeman tracked the ‘messiness’ of individual learning trajectories – a messiness not dissimilar to my random use of demonstratives. Larsen-Freeman conjectured that this very messiness might be indicative of the ‘instability that precedes a phase shift’ (2006: 611). And she adds, suggestively, ‘It is here where a pedagogical intervention might be optimal’ (ibid.).sauleda

What kind of pedagogical intervention?

I am drawn back to one of my favourite language learning accounts. Christopher Isherwood (1977:76), the writer, describes how he overcame a gap in his linguistic competence:

…Humphrey said suddenly, “You speak German so well – tell me, why don’t you ever use the subjunctive mood?” Christopher had to admit that he didn’t know how to. In the days when he had studied German, he had left the subjunctive to be dealt with later, since it wasn’t absolutely essential and he was in a hurry. By this time he could hop through the language without its aid, like an agile man with only one leg. But now Christopher set himself to master the subjunctive. Very soon, he had done so. Proud of this accomplishment, he began showing off whenever he talked: “had it not been for him, I should never have asked myself what I would do if they were to — etc., etc.” Humphrey was much amused.

In much the same way, I’m approaching the ‘holes’ in my own competence. How? A good old-fashioned students’ grammar, and a workbook of exercises. Hopefully, I will be able to find opportunities to activate, in real contexts (like the pastelería), the explicit knowledge gained from this mechanical practice, and trigger some kind of phase shift.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Formas del pronombre demostrativo (from Sánchez Pérez & Sarmiento González 2005)

Formas del pronombre demostrativo (from Sánchez Pérez & Sarmiento González 2005). Click to enlarge.



Ellis, R. (1999) ‘Item versus system learning: explaining free variation’, Applied Linguistics, 20/4, 460-80.

Isherwood, C. (1977) Christopher and His Kind: 1929-1939, London: Eyre Methuen.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2006) ‘The emergence of complexity, fluency, and accuracy in the oral and written production of five Chinese learners of English,’ Applied Linguistics, 27/4, 590-619.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Cameron, L. (2008) Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lewin, R. (1993) Complexity: Life on the edge of chaos, London: Phoenix Books.

Sánchez Pérez, A. y Sarmiento González, R. (2005) Gramática práctica del español actual, Madrid: SGEL.

Fossilization: is it terminal, doctor?

Cartoon displayed with special permission from Glasbergen.com

Cartoon displayed with special permission from Glasbergen.com

If there were ever to be an SLA ‘Hall of Fame’, prime candidates would be Alberto and Wes, both of them icons of fossilization, each in their different ways.

Alberto (Schumann 1978) was a Costa Rican immigrant to the US, who had little or no contact with English speakers, and whose rudimentary English not only remained static over the 10 months he was studied, but seemed impervious to any instructional interventions. His researcher attributed this stasis to his unwillingness to ‘acculturate’, i.e. to integrate into the dominant English-speaking culture.

Wes (Schmidt 1983), a Japanese immigrant to Hawaii, likewise showed little or no grammatical development over the 3-year period in which his English was tracked, but he did exhibit a high level of communicative competence, including the capacity to manage conversations. He did this through a variety of means, such as paraphrase, use of formulaic language, and repair strategies, impelled always by his conviction that it was as much the responsibility of his interlocutors to understand him as it was his responsibility to make himself understood to them. Given that he was fully immersed in, and positively inclined towards, the host English-speaking community, the apparent fossilization of his English is attributed less to social than to psycholinguistic factors: his inability, for example, to attend to linguistic form.

A third – less well-known – candidate for the Hall of Fame might be Patty (Lardiere 2000): an Indonesian of Chinese origin who lived in Hong Kong before emigrating to the US, marrying first to a Vietnamese and then to an English speaker. Her English was tracked over 10 years, and, while it showed a high degree of syntactical accuracy (i.e. word order), there were no gains in terms of morphological features (word endings, plurals etc). The researcher attributed this to the relatively late age of contact with English, and the concomitant inability to perceive (and hence generalize from) the details. (In language acquisition, the devil is indeed in the details). Patty’s written English, it should be noted, was more accurate than her spoken.

These three stories (and there are many more, less well documented ones) tend to underscore the fact that, as Ellis (2008) puts it: ‘Fossilization is not an all-or-nothing phenomena. First, there is considerable variation in the extent to which individual learners fossilize.… [Moreover] it is perfectly possible for a learner to be fossilized in some aspects of the L2 but to continue to develop in others’ (Ellis 2008, p. 28).

However, of the three case studies cited, only Patty’s really qualifies as a case of true fossilization (and, to be fair, neither Schumann nor Schmidt use the term in their own studies) since hers was the only study that was conducted over long enough a period to suggest that the non-target-like nature of at least some of her interlanguage grammar was immutable. That, after all, is what fossilization means, surely.

Or does it?  As Long (2003) reminds us, ‘For many, “fossilization” has simply become a general, non-technical name for non-target-like ultimate attainment, that is, a performance descriptor, a broad-brush method of characterising what a learner did not do, not a competence issue, a matter of what he or she could not do, which is what made the original claim interesting’ (p.513, emphasis added).  And he adds, ‘If fossilization is to have value as a construct in SLA theory, it must refer to something other than this general age-related decline in the capacity to acquire any language’ (p.519).

doughty & longIn other words, Long is asking us to distinguish between ‘failure to acquire’ (a widespread phenomenon) and ‘loss of ability to acquire’, a much more slippery notion, since what exactly is it that is lost, and how can you prove a negative anyway?  How do we know that Patty won’t suddenly (or even slowly) make a tiny incremental change in the direction of the target?  For all these reasons, SLA scholars prefer the less terminal term stabilization: ‘Stabilization refers to a state of L2 development where fluctuation has temporarily ceased. Many L2 learners are familiar with the situation where they appear to plateau, failing to develop despite their continuing efforts to do so, and then make a ‘breakthrough’ sometime later’ (Ellis, op. cit: 30).

Ellis adds that ‘there is also another reason for preferring “stabilization” to “fossilization”. Talk of fossilization positions L2 learners as failures but, in fact, many achieve very considerable success in acquiring an L2’ (op. cit: 13). Indeed, the whole notion of a finite ‘end state’ in language acquisition has been challenged in recent years, along with the idea that native-speaker proficiency should be the measure by which learners should be judged.

From a dynamic systems perspective, that is, one in which language acquisition is viewed as an open and continually evolving system, Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008) argue that there can be no ‘end state’ as such, and hence no such thing as fossilization. This is not to say that there is no inertia in dynamic systems, only that it is not permanent.  ‘Any fossilized form should be seen against a backdrop of the boundlessness of potentiality that is the hallmark of an open, dynamic system, one in which learners actively transform their linguistic world, not just conform to it’ (p. 142, emphasis added).

In the end, as Ortega (2009: 135) summarises it, ‘the notion of fossilization, while strongly intuitive, has proved to be extremely problematic to pin down’.   If I’d thought twice, I might have called this blog ‘The (De-) Stabilization Diaries’ – but, then, would anyone have known what I was talking about?

Be that as it may, and inspired by ‘the boundlessness of potentiality’, I have enrolled in two weeks of intensive Spanish classes.  More on that shortly.


Ellis, R. (2008) The Study of Second Language Acquisition [2nd edition]. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lardiere, D. (2000) ‘Case and tense in the “fossilized” steady-state’, Second Language Research, 14.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Cameron, L. (2008) Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Long, M. (2003) ‘Stabilization and fossilization in second language interlanguage development’, in Doughty, C., and Long, M. (eds.) The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition, Oxford: Blackwell.

Ortega, L. (2009) Understanding Second Language Acquisition, London: Hodder Education.

Schmidt, R. (1983) ‘Interaction, acculturation and the acquisition of communicative competence,’ in  Wolfson, N., & Judd, E. (eds.) Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition, Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Schumann, J. (1978) The Pidginization Process: A Model for Second Language Acquisition, Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Some background

I was 36 when I arrived in Barcelona, a relatively late-starter in terms of second language learning, and with a poor track record to boot.  Moreover, I had an English-speaking partner, so (unlike the younger generation of expatriates I would be working with) there was to be no Spanish sweetheart to kick-start my language acquisition.  As a precaution, I had taken a few informal Spanish lessons prior to leaving London, and had bought a BBC course, whose listening texts were innovatively authentic but, for all intents and purposes, impenetrable.

Teacher training, 1986.

Fashion victim? Teacher training, 1986.

I was immediately plunged into a bruisingly busy timetable in a predominantly English-speaking institutional context. If Spanish was around, it existed at the periphery, like background noise: the language of shops, bars and restaurants – and hence primarily a weekend experience.

I signed up for Spanish classes in a private language school but the methodology was eccentric to say the least, and the content often irrelevant, being too firmly tied to the grammar structure of the day. Of one whole course all I remember is the sentence  El payaso hace reir a la gente (The clown makes people laugh), and the teacher’s constant use of the device Vamos a ver (Now, let’s see).

I then managed to get a place in one of the state-sponsored language schools (las Escuelas Oficiales). I was placed in a class way above my level. I hadn’t exactly cheated in the level test, but – being a language teacher and occasional test-designer myself – I was able to do the multiple choice grammar test simply by using common sense. Even when I was dropped down a level, I was still way outside my comfort zone. Again, the program was myopically grammar-focused (one whole semester dealt almost exclusively with the subjunctive), but at least the teachers had a good sense of how to set up pair and group work.

Nevertheless, frustrated by the lack of real practice, I started an intercambio (conversation exchange) with one of my students, an intense young poet with progressive tendencies. These weekly exchanges provided useful practice, although I think we were both frustrated by the way that the topics we wanted to talk about (films, literature, politics) tended to evaporate through want of the necessary linguistic means. He was also a much more disciplined student than me, and soon his level of English had far outstripped mine in Spanish.

I started another intercambio with a group of friends: the four of us met in a bar every Monday night and paired off.  V. (another chain-smoking intellectual) was uncompromisingly difficult, and impossible to understand. G. however, was the ideal partner: her English was more or less where my Spanish was. We seemed to be able to pitch the conversations at the optimal level of intelligibility, even if the content may have been relatively banal. When G. got an English-speaking boyfriend, the balance of the group shifted and my own role in scaffolding G.’s emergent English declined. Nevertheless, those well-oiled Monday night conversations probably did more for my Spanish than anything else to date.

I also tried to read in Spanish regularly: newspapers and novels, although often abandoned the latter as being too much like hard work. Watching TV and going to the movies played a minor role: my problems with decoding spoken language (more on that later) meant that my comprehension was largely pragmatic: i.e. pure guesswork (and frequently wrong). Had teletext subtitles been available, the combination of the aural and graphic signals might have made TV viewing more fruitful, but they weren’t.

Searching for input + 1 (Galicia 1988)

Searching for ‘input + 1’ on a beach in Galicia (1988)

Unhappily perhaps, my views on language learning were at the time heavily influenced by the work of Stephen Krashen (it was the mid-80s after all), which meant that (a) I was very skeptical as to the value of instructed learning, and (b) I consequently placed a lot of faith in simply picking up Spanish through exposure. In those days, immersion ruled. I was to become one of its ideological fashion victims.

In Krashen’s defense, it has to be admitted that I was not exactly energetic in terms of seeking out optimal exposure opportunities, and even when I did get ‘input’, it was mostly uncomprehended. An article in the latest Modern Language Journal (Trentman 2013) makes the point that ‘much of the language contact research has revealed that contact with locals in the target language is often not as extensive as one might have expected from an immersion setting’ (p.459).

Thirty years on, and what’s new?  First of all, I tend to avoid mentioning the thirty years. The response is often outright incredulity: “But how come your Spanish is so bad?!”

Admittedly, people are normally more polite than that (although once a particularly tactless Californian woman, gesticulating like an exorcist, gasped: ‘Ugh. Bad Spanish!’).  So, in answer to the question ‘How long have you been here?’ I hedge, and let my addressee figure that I arrived when I had already reached the point in my life beyond which it’s impossible to learn anything new, let alone a second language.

Needless to say, this reaction – whether spoken or unspoken – is unsettling, to say the least.  And on at least two counts. For a start, it’s true: I simply ought to be able to speak better Spanish after thirty years, so there must be some flaw in my nature, such as laziness, or obstinacy, or just plain stupidity, that has prevented me from integrating linguistically into the host culture. Worse is the insinuation that failure to speak your host country’s language fluently is a moral failing, a discourtesy, an indecency, even: you’re not just a bad language learner, you’re a BAD language learner.  Failure to speak the language is tantamount to a failure to integrate, which in turn must be attributed to a lack of interest in, or respect for, the host culture – and all those who embody it. To the point that, through fear of offending, you become afraid to ever open your mouth. (Not opening your mouth is not conducive to the development of fluency, it goes without saying).

train to san sebastian 1989 bw

Immersion? En route to San Sebastian, 1989.

But more galling still is the knowledge that, since my professional life is devoted largely to helping other people become better teachers of a second language, my failure to master Spanish would seem to throw into doubt everything I stand for. It’s dispiriting, to say the least, to sense that, behind your back, you’re being labeled a charlatan, or an impostor.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, I’ve shown more than a passing interest in the literature on fossilization. While it’s debatable as to whether my Spanish is irremediable (and the point of this blog is to put that notion to the test), or indeed that any second language learning experience is necessarily imperfect, the idea that many, indeed, most learners reach a ‘ceiling’ or ‘plateau’, beyond which they cannot budge, is widespread in our profession. So, my ulterior motive is to put that notion to the test, too.

Before outlining the steps I plan to take to crank up my Spanish, I’ll be briefly reviewing some of the literature on fossilization, and then attempting to diagnose, from a linguistic perspective, the exact nature of my own ‘arrested development’. Then the fun will start!


Trentman, E. (2013) ‘Arabic and English during study abroad in Cairo, Egypt: Issues of access and use,’ Modern Language Journal, 97/2: 457-473.

The (de-) fossilization diaries


Selinker (1972) noted that most L2 learners fail to reach target-language competence. That is, they stop learning while their internalized rule system contains rules different from those of the target system. This is referred to as ‘fossilization’. It can also be viewed as a cognitive process, whereby new learning is blocked by existing learning. It remains a controversial construct with some researchers arguing that there is never a complete cessation of learning.

(Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition [2nd edition]. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 963)

I’ve been living in Spain for nearly thirty years, and my Spanish (never very good to start with) appears to have fossilized. That is to say, if someone who had interacted with me in Spanish twenty years ago were to talk to me again now, it’s unlikely they would detect much improvement.  Worse, they may even note a distinct regression (aka attrition): not so much fossilized, as atrophied!

But, taking heart from Ellis’s comment that ‘there is never a complete cessation of learning’, I am going to attempt to redress the rot, as it were, and to ‘de-fossilize’. I am going to do this using a number of means, including formal instruction, vocabulary memorization, extensive reading and (if I can find it)  informal interaction.  At the same time, I plan to inform the process by occasional reference to the literature on second language acquisition (SLA), including such issues as motivation, age effects, aptitude, exposure, fluency, error correction, and identity formation. I imagine that there will be implications to be drawn in terms of language teaching methodology.

In short, I am going to devote as much time and effort as I can possibly manage towards dispelling the myth that language learning just stops.

This blog will be a record of that journey.

(Go to Contents to see previous posts).

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