Shining Some Light on Fossilization in SLA

But What Does It Take to Achieve Mastery? 

Practice makes perfect

My mother did not speak English until moving to the US where she was suddenly thrown into an English speaking environment with no choice but to learn English.

She had to practice: shopping; meeting people; getting around; reading newspapers and signs; watching television, all in English. Acquisition was a given. 

Before long she became a fluent English speaker.

But despite the practice and exposure, she never achieved mastery. Her heavy accent and repetitive mistakes didn’t hinder her socialization and communication but if she had been one of my university students, she would have been unable to get a high mark on required proficiency exams like IELTS or TOEFL.

Although she was highly educated, and cultured, her command of English would have prevented her, not only from passing exams, but also from getting scholarships, jobs and even furthering her studies.

Basically, she had an ideal situation for learning English, [ESL-English as a second language] with all but the formal classes. The question is: were the missing formal classes the reason for not mastering the language? 

Conversely, learners of EFL [English as a foreign language] don’t have the same advantages she had. But they do have formal instruction and do acquire English to varying degrees. Yet they may also fail to achieve mastery. We can deduce the following:

Sufficient practice leads to acquisition but not necessarily to mastery.

I believe that both ESL and EFL learners may practice enough to acquire the language, but when they get comfortable with their production, their subconscious mind may stop trying. Students consciously want to keep trying and improving but they may be totally unaware of their shortcomings.

When they finally realize they haven’t reached the target, they seek grammar lessons and more vocabulary without realizing that Incorrect practice led to incorrect acquisition, in the first place!

Is there hope for students who never got enough correct practice or formal learning and are now falling short of the mark? Repetitive inaccuracy [fossilization] is not given much hope for correction by expert researchers (Han 2004).

Incorrect practice fosters fossilization which is probably ESL/EFL teachers’ worst nightmare.  

It seems that once a person is comfortable with a skill, any skill, no matter how backhanded it is, they form a fixed paradigm in their mind about how to practice that skill. This paradigm makes it easier to function from within their comfort zone, than to stretch boundaries and expose weaknesses they feel uncomfortable with. I believe this so called fossilization happens in all areas of learning but is more noticeable in second language acquisition where errors ring louder bells.

Consciously, students are eager to correct their errors and will study and practice diligently. When they take quizzes they often do an excellent job. But when they are put to the task, it is easier to stay in their subconscious comfort zone that to venture forth. The minute they have to produce quickly and unexpectedly they fall back into their comfort zone or old paradigms. This results in repetitive, ‘incurable’ mistakes.

Despite the opinions of the experts, I feel that a shift from inaccuracy to accuracy is possible with enough motivation and practice and it requires three things:

1. Awareness of the error
2. Practice with right brain activities
3. Paradigm shifts at subconscious levels

I grew up in the Southwest and I pronounced the word: get as git and the word just as jist. I was totally unaware that this pronunciation was a dead giveaway of where I grew up. At university, I began training in theater where I became aware of my pronunciation. To be on stage I had to relearn how to pronounce these words.

y director was quick to make corrections; I got a lot of practice in clear non-regional pronunciation. Now, as a teacher, I know that theatre and dialogues are an excellent way to help instill correct pronunciation and accuracy for ESL/EFL students. 

With a full scholarship from the theatre department, during the four years it took me to get my BA in education, I got enough practice to shift any paradigms I might have had. I no longer had a regional accent and I was able to speak naturally with the clarity of a newscaster. This came because:

***I had been made aware of my errors,
***I got lots of hands on practice and
***I was able to make permanent paradigm shifts.

My experience in teaching fossilized university level students shows that they are reminded of their errors. They are given cognitive explanations of why these errors are errors. These are followed by some drills but rarely is right brain stimulation provided which could facilitate a shift in paradigms. 

They JIST can’t GIT it right! Oops, I mean they JUST can’t GET it right! 

Of course, the best cure for fossilization is prevention. ESL/EFL students need a carefully laid out and scaffolded foundation program to prevent future problems. Teachers need enough expertise in core skills, awareness of student needs and activities to practice with. Teachers must scaffold students enough to provide a safe and successful start in the language.   

Of course prevention is not possible, after the fact. So the only solution could be specific attempts to shift paradigms. Fortunately students want to improve their skills so let’s find the way to shift inaccurate paradigms. What kind of practice would you recommend for this?  

Post your suggestions here so we can share some good strategies to help students achieve mastery so they can join the global community in careers, jobs and studies.  

CLICK HERE to watch this video that will help you understand what fossilization really is, at a deeper level. It gives me hope that fossilization can be successfully addressed in the ESL/EFL classroom.

Han, Z. (2004). Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition. Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters, Ltd.
Sandlin, D. (2015). Everyone Failed to Ride This Bicycle.Retrieved February, 2016 from

2 thoughts on “Shining Some Light on Fossilization in SLA

  1. Amanda M. Amarotico

    I really like this article and it makes a lot of sense. I hope to have a chance to use more drama in the class, whether it be Grammar/Writing; Reading/Writing; or Listening/Speaking. Even a 5 – 10 minute warm up at the start of class could get them learning to read/vocalize/hear their own voice.

    • Leona Wellington

      The big advantage of drama is that it takes practice so students don’t feel like they are drilling yet the are. It facilitates acquisition!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *