Language Fossilization and Why It Matters
The term fossilization in language learning refers to errors that a non-native speaker makes so often in the target language they become ingrained over time. There are many reasons why fossilization occurs, most notably first language interference (which includes the use of false cognates) and the overgeneralization of rules.
Here are some common examples of fossilized speech:
- My sister has 15 years.
- He study English at school.
- I am work at Walmart.
- The apple are on the table.
- Ben play computer games yesterday.
Because the speaker has repeated the same mistakes again and again, the inaccuracies may sound correct to his or her own ears. Furthermore, the speaker often isn’t aware that he or she is making the errors since they rarely hinder communication or impede meaning; the speaker’s interlocutors aren’t inclined to stop a conversation to point out a grammatical blunder or a pronunciation misstep when doing so would risk a break in the flow of the interaction.
Despite the fact that fossilization doesn’t prevent learners from being understood, it can have some very real negative consequences. Perhaps most importantly, fossilization can make non-native speakers seem less educated and/or less fluent than they actually are.
Of course, the best way to ensure that fossilization doesn’t take hold in your students’ language use is prevention. If you teach beginners, you can stress accuracy from Day 1 and nip any potential problems in the bud. But, as we all know, you aren’t always going to be your students’ first exposure to English.
However, there are strategies that you can use to help your students overcome fossilized speech patterns by raising their awareness of frequent errors.
Record students’ speech. Have students listen to a short clip of themselves speaking and see if they can detect their errors. If they are unable to hear their errors, ask them to transcribe their speech as they listen and then make corrections. SoundCloud and VoiceThread are excellent online tools for this exercise.
Encourage students to peer edit. Put students into pairs. Give one student in each pair a set of open-ended questions to ask their partner. (Try Conversation Questions in our Resources section.) As the interviewee answers each question, have the interviewer jot down errors. Before the next question is asked, have the interviewer share what he or she noticed.
Write five correct and five incorrect sentences in random order on the board. Have students divide the sentences into two groups (Correct and Incorrect).
Point out errors that you have noticed students make repeatedly. Then ask them to keep a journal of instances when they notice themselves making those errors that you have identified.
Feign incomprehension. When students make a fossilized error, pretend that you don’t understand what they are saying. Ask them to rephrase it using the correct word or structure.
Have students analyze why they are making the mistake. (E.g., can they figure out why they use “say” in a sentence when “tell” is called for?)