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A General Review of Causal Factors of Fossilization in Adult Second Language Acquisition

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- Macroscopic Analysis

- The critical period hypothesis

Psycho-biologist Lennerberg proposed the concept of Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) in human language learning in 1967. He suggested that the period from age 2 to 13 is critical to language learning, during which learning is more successful than the following years. This period is considered to be closely associated with neurobiological processes during which “lateralization of cognitive, linguistic, and perceptual functions myelination, the proliferation of neurons in the cerebral cortex… to name a few— that take place during the first years of like and that taper off and plateau by puberty.”(Scovel 68)

In terms of the CPR for second language acquisition, Lennerberg (176) made specific claim that “most individuals of average intelligence are able to learn a second language after the beginning of their second decade, although the incidence of ‘language-learning-blocks’ rapidly increases after puberty.

Great deals of empirical studies have been made to refine the notion of CPR and to demonstrate that it is absolute. The famous case of Genie (Curtiss 78) was taken as solid evidence. Genie never got a chance to develop her language ability during the critical period due to absolute isolation from normal social interaction until she was found in 13. In spite of much effort made to restore her language ability, little progress in language development was exhibited. The case greatly helps to prove that the critical period in FLA is absolute. However, the scope of CP effects seemed to be minor in SLA since it seemed that “anyone can learn some aspects of an unfamiliar tongue at any age”. (Oyama 279) It has been suggested that there is “a sensitive period exists for the acquisition of a nonnative phonological system”. (Oyama 261) It is worth noticing that the CP in the context of SLA is not absolute but rather a sensitive period, “within which L2 learning is successful and beyond which learning is still possible but highly variable and less successful”. (Han 62)

In fact, SLA research has abundant evidence showing that “age at arrival was a strong predictor of degree of accent”. (Oyama 261) Besides phonological system, syntactic developments have also been found to be closely associated with CP effects. Patkowski demonstrate that “there is an age limitation on the ability to acquire full command of syntax” in a second language through empirical researches. (Han 50)

So far, the majority of scholars of SLA have reached a consensus that CP effects would have more profound impacts on phonology and morphosyntax than lexicon and pragmatics. It has been concluded that the CP “applied differentially to linguistic domains.” (Han 62)

- Native Language transfer

Native language transfer has always been at the center of SLA research. The influence of L1 is believed to play two different roles in L2 learning: positive and negative. Negative transfer, also known as interlanguage interferences, involves divergences from norms in the target language. Here the language transfer we talk about in terms of fossilization obviously refers to the negative one.

In discussing the linkage of language transfer and fossilization, Selinker and Lamendella (199) took a retrospective look of previous studies. They noticed that Uriel Weinreich actually talked about “permanent grammatical transfer” and gave numerous examples in 1953. Language in Contact. Weinreich. In 1961, Nemser in the first experimental testing of contrastive linguistic claims discusses “…the formation of permanent intermediate systems and subsystems…” in the English of Hungarian speakers.

It has been proved, through substantive empirical studies, that LT was one of the main cause of fossilization. Howerver, what role does LT play in giving rise to fossilization? Selinker and he proposed the concept of Multiple Effect Principlev (MEP) and suggest it as a partial answer. When multiple SLA factors work together, there is a greater chance of fossilization to happen and language transfer is believed to play a central role among various possible SLA factors. That is to say, “it is multiple, as opposed to singular, factors that underpin resistance and persistence” of fossilization. (Han 118) Han and Selinker conducted a study spanning one academic year to examine the persistent and resistant structure in the interlanguage of an adult native-speaker of Thai learning Norwegian as the L2. They found that “there was an interplay between L1 transfer and transfer of training”. (Han 120) Han (119) concluded that “language transfer is a prime factor in staging the coalescence of multiple effects, thereby leading to the long-term persistance and resistance of interlanguage features”. It is not that fossilization happens only when language transfer occurs, but that language transfer together with other causal factors often lead to fossilization in SLA.

- Conclusion

In the fields of SLA research, abundant empirical studies have been conducted to explore the name and nature of fossilization. With the conceptual developments, it is worth noticing that fossilization is basically caused by constant functioning of the effects of CP and NL constraints, yet it can also be affected by environmental, social and psychological forces.

Works cited

Curtiss, Susan R. Genie: A Linguistic Study of a Modern Day" wild-child.". Univ. Microfilms Intern., 1977.

Ellis, Rod. Understanding second language acquisition. Vol. 47. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Ellis, Rod. The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994

Han, Zhaohong. Fossilization in adult second language acquisition. Vol. 5. Multilingual Matters, 2004.

Lenneberg, Eric H., Noam Chomsky, and Otto Marx. Biological foundations of language. Vol. 68. New York: Wiley, 1967.

Lowther, Marquette. "Fossilization, pidginization and the Monitor." Language across cultures. Dublin: Irish Association for Applied Linguistics (1983): 127-39.

Odlin, Terence. Language transfer: Cross-linguistic influence in language learning. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Oyama, Susan. "A sensitive period for the acquisition of a nonnative phonological system." Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 5.3 (1976):


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