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Studies of Fossilization in Second Language Acquisition

reviewed by Rula L. Diab - February 27, 2006

coverTitle: Studies of Fossilization in Second Language Acquisition
Author(s): ZhaoHong Han & Terence Odlin (Eds)
Publisher: Multilingual Matters, Clevedon
ISBN: 1853598356, Pages: 214, Year: 2006
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This book is part of the Multilingual Matters series in second language (L2) acquisition, which presents several volumes dealing with important issues in L2 acquisition theory and research such as motivation and language attitudes, L2 writing systems, early trilingualism, age and the acquisition of English as a foreign language, the effects of the second language on the first, and artificial intelligence in L2 learning. This edited volume, a follow-up on Han’s (2004) Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition, opens with an introductory chapter by Han and Odlin, which presents a review of the relevant literature and provides a convincing rationale for compilation of the papers in the current volume. Of the next nine chapters, four are analytical, four are research studies, and the concluding chapter by Larsen-Freeman, entitled “Second Language Acquisition and the Issue of Fossilization: There Is No End, and There Is No State,” is a commentary summarizing the arguments made and further discussing major issues in fossilization research such as non-native-likeness, stability, and cessation of learning. Finally, an afterword by Larry Selinker, “Fossilization ‘or’ Does Your Mind Mind?,” provides a discerning and insightful discussion of the major topics presented in the book, outlines the ways in which the book has added to the field, and highlights the major issues that merit further investigation and analysis.

The four empirical papers in the book are presented in chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6. In chapter 3, “Establishing Ultimate Attainment in a Particular Second Language Grammar,” Lardiere presents new research data from an ongoing longitudinal study of the language development of Patty, a native speaker of Hokkien and Mandarin Chinese who learned English as an adult. Considering the new findings, which reveal that the learner has stabilized knowledge of the verb-raising constraint in English, with those of previous studies, Lardiere concludes that fossilization is not global: Fossilization in one language domain, such as inflectional morphology, does not necessarily imply fossilization will take place in another area, such as knowledge of syntactic features. Lardiere also argues that fossilization can only be interpreted within the context of ultimate attainment, and he maintains that the concept of selective fossilization may be a useful one that pertains to modularity within the language faculty and thus explains how the same learner can attain different outcomes in different language areas.

Han in chapter 4, “Fossilization: Can Grammaticality Judgment Be a Reliable Source of Evidence?,” also reports on findings from an ongoing longitudinal investigation by presenting data from a study examining cross-comparisons of the grammaticality judgment (GJ) methodology and naturalistic production data collected from two adult native speakers of Chinese. Findings supported the reliability of the GJ methodology and suggested that the GJ data were more effective than the naturalistic production data in investigating L2 learners’ knowledge of English unaccusatives. Analyzing the findings further, the chapter ends with a discussion of two major issues in fossilization research, indeterminacy and end state.

In chapter 5, “Fossilization in L2 and L3,” Odlin, Alonso, and Alonso-Vazquez report on a study investigating parallels between second and third language acquisition with regard to fossilization and transfer and exploring what methodologies are appropriate for studying acquisition of tense and related verb categories. Findings revealed that speakers’ noticing of semantic and pragmatic conditions accompanying the use of the present perfect tense was influenced by their previous acquisition of Galician or Galician-influenced Spanish. The authors conclude that the findings provide indirect evidence for fossilization of production patterns in third language acquisition parallel to those in bilingual settings.

The fourth and last chapter reporting on a research study is chapter 6, “Child Second Language Acquisition and the Fossilization Puzzle,” in which Lakshmanan, using Foster-Cohen’s sliding window approach in the area of verb-inflectional morphology in L2 acquisition of English, argues that the pattern of development is similar in child and adult L2 learning and explores how longitudinal cross-age comparisons can provide crucial information about L2 fossilization. In addition, Lakshmanan investigates the patterns of L2 acquisition, reacquisition, and attrition of word order in Hindi/Urdu negatives of two English-speaking children. Findings revealed consistent evidence of backsliding in the interlanguage of the children. The author concludes the chapter by suggesting that the criteria for the target language end-state should not be based on monolingual native speaker norms but rather on the language of bilinguals who have acquired and maintained two languages simultaneously from birth.

The four analytical papers in the book are presented in chapters 2, 7, 8, and 9. In chapter 2, “Researching Fossilization and Second Language Attrition: Easy Questions, Difficult Answers,” Nakuma discusses fossilization in relation to attrition, argues that both are hypotheses rather than phenomena, and provides an interesting discussion on whether empirical research on fossilization and attrition is feasible. The chapter ends with a list of questions that have been asked in the author’s argument but that are obviously open for further debate and analyses. Such questions include the extent to which fossilization and attrition are widespread among L2 learners, whether interlanguage can ever stop developing in the L2 learner, the difficulty in identifying and measuring the product of attrition and fossilization, and whether fossilization and attrition should be considered justifiable areas of investigation outside the domain of second language acquisition.

In chapter 7, “Emergent Fossilization,” MacWhinney evaluates 12 models that have attempted to account for fossilization and Age of Arrival effects in second language acquisition and concludes that the model that best fits observed patterns is one that combines entrenchment and parasitic transfer since it explains the general gradual decline in L2 acquisition; nevertheless, such a model fails to predict certain patterns such as diversity of outcomes among adult learners. Therefore, the author concludes that in addition to entrenchment and parasitic transfer, two more concepts are also essential to consider: the effects of social stratification and compensatory strategies.

In chapter 8, “Fossilization, Social Context and Language Play,” Tarone claims that fossilization can be partly explained by “a complex web of social and socio-psychological forces that increases in complexity with the increasing age of second language learners” (p. 170). The author also argues that a model of second language acquisition based on Larsen-Freeman’s (1997) chaos theory of interlanguage is a promising one that may help in interpreting how the increasing age of the learner can influence second language acquisition; according to the author, such a model suggests that language play may destabilize an interlanguage, ultimately counteracting fossilization.

Finally, chapter 9 by Birdsong, “Why Not Fossilization?” the last analytical paper in the book, critically assesses the term fossilization, maintains that the concept of non-native-likeness is itself problematic, and claims that much of fossilization research is “not without peril” (p.173). Presenting recent evidence on the native-like attainment by L2 learners, the author argues that the potential of the learner should be emphasized alongside learner deficiencies that have been typically focused on fossilization research.

As mentioned earlier, this book is a follow-up on Han’s (2004) Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition, which discusses behavioral reflexes and causal variables in fossilization, critical period effects, native language transfer, and second language teaching in relation to fossilization. This volume, on the other hand, attempts to fill a void in the field by presenting a variety of recent analytical papers and research studies on fossilization rather than theoretical speculations about causal factors. In addition to the recent empirical evidence and the methodological insights provided, several key issues in fossilization research, such as stability, indeterminacy, non-native-likeness, ultimate attainment, and end state, are analyzed by a variety of different scholars. The book makes a timely contribution that will provide stimulating reading for second language acquisition researchers and L2 teachers alike. Obviously, researchers involved in second language fossilization studies will particularly find this book valuable.


Han, Z. (2004). Fossilization in adult second language acquisition. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997). Chaos/complexity science and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics, 18, 141–165.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 27, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12335, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 3:28:50 AM

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About the Author
  • Rula Diab
    American University of Beirut
    E-mail Author
    RULA L. DIAB is Assistant Professor in the English Department at the American University of Beirut. Her research interests include individual differences in second language acquisition, particularly motivation, attitudes, and beliefs about language learning; socio-cultural and political factors in foreign language education; and the area of second language writing. Her research has appeared in TESL Canada Journal, TESL Reporter, and Texas Papers in Foreign Language Education, and is forthcoming in System, TESL-EJ, and the English Teaching Forum.
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