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Unpacking the Selective Fossilization Hypothesis: Questions, Insights, and Possibilities

Finneran, Rosette Bambino; Wai Man Lew, Adrienne

A defining characteristic of second language learning, fossilization has been referred to as one the most enduring and fascinating problems confronting researchers of second language acquisition (SLA) (Han, 2004a). Indeed, not only SLA researchers, but also researchers from fields as varied as theoretical linguistics, cognitive psychology, and neurolinguistics, have sought to explain the general failure of adult learners to master a second language (L2) “despite continuous exposure to the target language (TL) input, adequate motivation to improve, and sufficient opportunity for practice” (Han, 2004b, p. 4). Within the field of SLA, numerous perspectives of fossilization have emerged over the past thirty-five years – some contradictory, others complementary – all adding to our understanding of the phenomenon. However, in the three and a half decades since Selinker’s (1972) notion of fossilization “spur[red] the field of Second Language Acquisition … into existence (Han, 2009, p.137), none has offered an analytic model with the predictive and explanatory potential of Han’s Selective Fossilization Hypothesis (SFH).

Han’s (2009) paper titled Interlanguage and fossilization: Towards an analytic model introduces the Selective Fossilization Hypothesis. Citing empirical evidence from the L2 initial state to the L2 endstate, Han “draws primarily on the UG-L21 perspective to elucidate the issue of selective fossilization” (p.139, emphasis added), which she defines as “lack of precision and accuracy … in some, rather than all, subsystems of the interlanguage” (p.138). With the SFH, Han explores the interaction of first language (L1) markedness and L2 input robustness as a determinant of selective fossilization. In Han’s model, a horizontal axis represents the continuum of L1 markedness, with its left end being marked (i.e., denoting a form that is infrequent and variable in its L1 counterpart, if existent), and its right end being unmarked(i.e., indicating a form that is frequent and invariable in the L1 counterpart, if existent). Alternately, a vertical axis represents the continuum of L2 input robustness, its low end being robust (i.e., denoting a form that is frequent and invariable in the L2 input), and its high end, non-robust (i.e., indicating a form that is infrequent and variable in the L2 input). The intersection of these two axes creates four broad zones, each indicative of a possible prognosis of L2 acquisition or fossilization (p. 144). Han further proposes a numerical model, which she hopes will serve as “a springboard for future research” (p.157).

While still in the preliminary stages of development, the SFH holds great promise for SLA theory and practice. From a pedagogical perspective, the benefits of the SFH are obvious: knowing which features of the L2 are likely to fossilize and which are more amenable to instruction can lead ESL instructors to set more realistic goals for instruction, to develop more focused curricula, to fine-tune input to be provided to the learner, and to respond to learner output in a more effective manner. Further, from a theoretical perspective, the SFH offers the scientific means to move fossilization research “beyond its hitherto primarily argumentative basis” and towards “a more tangible and precise understanding” (Han, 2009, pp.157-158).

This edition of the Forum features 10 commentaries on the Selective Fossilization Hypothesis (SFH) by members of Dr. ZhaoHong Han’s Fall 2009 Doctoral Seminar in TESOL at Teachers College, Columbia University. The contributors explore the SFH from a variety of perspectives, from its conceptual underpinnings and possible validation issues, to its potential applications for empirical research and instructed SLA. In the first commentary, Rosette Bambino Finneran contextualizes the construct of L1 markedness with a view toward minimizing potential misconceptions of its role in the SFH. Hiromi Noguchi then examines its fundamental assumptions regarding the role of L1 semantic / conceptual influence in L2 acquisition; Jookyoung Jung echoes the focus on L1 conceptual transfer, but looks specifically into its relationship with L2 grammatical morphemes. The putative role of consciousness in the SFH comprises the topic of Ji-Yung Jung’s commentary. Hye Won Shin, moving beyond a conceptual analysis, appraises selected issues involved in validating the SFH. Looking ahead to the potential applications of the SFH in domains other than L2 morphosyntax, Timothy Hall probes the fossilization-formula interface, and Chen-ling Alice Chen, the possibility of applying the SFH within the context of L2 vocabulary acquisition. The pedagogical implications based on the predictive potential of the SFH are explored in both Shaoyan Qi’s piece on teaching Chinese as an L2 and Charles Combs’ look at “focus on form” intervention. Finally, Adrienne Wai Man Lew highlights the SFH’s form-meaning-function mapping approach to conceptualizing L2 acquisition as a common thread that puts issues of learnability across linguistic domains in perspective.


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Working Papers in Applied Linguistics & TESOL

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