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Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition

ZhaoHong Han
Multilingual Matters, 2004
pp. x + 201

Reviewed by :

To the Profile PageRobert J. Dickey
Gyeongju University, Korea

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The Critical Issue
Teachers and learners in language studies all become aware of the inevitable "plateaus" in learning, where development slows or even stops before the learning curve climbs once again. Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition deals with the final plateau, that which all language teachers and learners fear most: the point where there is no further language growth. ZhaoHong Han has compiled a detailed survey of the 30+ year history of this topic and added findings of her own to present the most detailed and current discussion available.

Fossilization is a process, not a product: we are not talking about a fossilized learner, but fossilized learning

95% Failure in Language Learning?
If only 5% of adult language learners attain native-like fluency in a second language, clearly teachers and researchers should be concerned. This figure is in sharp contrast to the "95% success" rate in first language acquisition! Originally coined by Selinker (1972), the term "fossilization" has seen many interpretations and re-definitions. Most English language teachers themselves have their own rough definition ­ Han spends a considerable amount of time reviewing the field and establishing exactly what it is we are talking about. Her definition is based on "cessation of learning in spite of continuous exposure to input, adequate motivation, and sufficient opportunity to practice" as "modulated" by individuals' internal and external factors. A taxonomy of "putative causal factors" outlines 50 problem areas. Additional issues include identifying when ultimate attainment (failure) occurs, and the perspective that this is a multivariate outcome: there can be varying levels of success in various aspects of language competence within any given language learner. Han observes that fossilization is a process, not a product: we are not talking about a fossilized learner, but fossilized learning.

A Systematic Framework
This book is not for the casual reader, but instead for those teachers (and scholars) interested in the underlying issues. The first three chapters are an enjoyable, yet intellectually stimulating, overview of the conceptual underpinnings for fossilization. Chapters four, five, and six are a challenging read, with detailed critique of microscopic and macroscopic studies of second language acquisition and fossilization. An important consideration for Han is the modular nature of second language acquisition, which appears not only as multiple critical periods (sensitive periods) for various language linguistic domains, but the differing influences of various L1s for L2 acquisition, so that success and failure co-exist in any given interlanguage. Particular linguistic features prone to fossilization are discussed in some detail. Much of this section reads like a thesis, so put your thinking caps on!

Issues for Second Language Instruction
Many teachers may skim through the middle chapters, or even duck them altogether, but chapter seven brings the issue to the classroom. Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition challenges the common perception that classroom explicit language instruction, particularly grammar instruction, is the prescription. Michael Long's 'Focus on FormS' versus 'Focus on Form' is just one of the approaches that are questioned. Unfortunately, Han does not provide an answer, merely observes that such certainty is not supported by findings from the limited research conducted to date. Similarly, comprehensible input, such as advocated by Steven Krashen, and Swain's comprehensible output, are challenged. Looking at the order of acquisition of morphemes, for example, it is shown that explicit instruction may be most useful for the easier rules. Furthermore, if students do indeed process for meaning before processing for form, this calls into question the efficacy of content-based approaches for language learning. All in all, Han suggests that there are elements of explicit language instruction, including corrective feedback, that may actually promote fossilization!

When you are ready to put some time aside to seriously consider why your adult students seem to have stopped learning, this is a book you will want to visit. Diane Larsen-Freeman is quoted on the back cover noting that this book "will be widely cited for some time to come," and no doubt that's true. This book reads like graduate school supplemental materials... references are extensive, but the index is quite modest, and it sorely lacks a glossary — myelination? It's filled with challenging word choices as well — exogenous conditions, coinceptive, profundity. Overcoming the challenge is a great reward, however, and I can honestly say that the book is well worth the intellectual investment.

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