What does fossilisation mean in language learning?

fossilisation is the term for incorrect language patterns that are often used. It is difficult to get rid of these errors, but definitely possible, even after years!

I. Introduction

Fossilisation in language learning refers to the process in which learners become stuck with incorrect language patterns or usage, which may persist even after years of learning and practice. Addressing fossilisation is crucial for language learners because it can hinder communication, impede progress, and ultimately prevent you from reaching your full potential as a language speaker. 

In this article, we will discuss the types of fossilisation, strategies to overcome it, and the importance of accepting certain errors while focusing on effective communication.

II. Types of Fossilisation

A. Phonological Fossilisation

Phonological fossilisation occurs when you consistently mispronounce certain sounds or have difficulty with particular aspects of a language’s phonology. For example, non-native Chinese learners often struggle with the language’s tonal system and may end up using incorrect tones when speaking. This can lead to misunderstandings and hinder effective communication.

Iamlearningmandarin blog has a very good overview on what these errors in tones mean and how to overcome these mistakes.

B. Lexical Fossilisation

Lexical fossilisation refers to the persistent use of incorrect or inappropriate vocabulary, which can result from direct translations from your native language or the overuse of a limited set of vocabulary. In Chinese, for instance, learners may misuse chengyus (idiomatic expressions) due to a lack of understanding of their proper context and meaning.

C. Syntactic Fossilisation

Syntactic fossilisation involves errors in grammar and sentence structure, which can lead to unclear or ambiguous communication. In Chinese, common syntactic errors include incorrect word order, misuse of measure words, and inappropriate use of sentence particles.

Foreigners often use the measure word 个 (ge) for a wide variety of nouns which shows a lack of understanding of measure word concept.

D. Pragmatic Fossilisation

Pragmatic fossilisation happens when you fail to use language appropriately according to the social and cultural norms of the target language. This can result in misunderstandings and may even cause offense. For example, not using the correct level of politeness when addressing someone in Chinese can be perceived as rude or disrespectful. This is especially true for Japanese where politeness levels are very distinct and each command a different use case.

III. Overcoming Fossilisation

A. Focused Practice and Repetition

To overcome fossilisation, you must be willing to engage in focused practice and repetition. This means identifying and targeting your problem areas and working on them consistently until you achieve improvement. For example, if you struggle with Chinese tones, dedicate time each day to tone drills and exercises to help you internalize the correct pronunciation.

B. Regular Feedback from Native Speakers or Teachers

Getting regular feedback from native speakers or teachers is crucial for identifying and addressing fossilisation. They can help you pinpoint specific errors and provide guidance on how to correct them. Make sure to be open to feedback and willing to work on the areas that need improvement. Italki can help you in finding online tutors for that.

C. Analyzing and Understanding the Errors

It’s essential to analyze and understand the errors that lead to fossilisation. This means reflecting on your language use, comparing it to native speaker norms, and identifying the specific issues that need to be addressed. By gaining a deeper understanding of your errors, you’ll be better equipped to tackle them head-on and make the necessary changes.

IV. Accepting Certain Errors

A. Importance of Achieving Advanced Language Understanding and Communication

While it’s important to work on overcoming fossilisation, it’s also crucial to accept that certain errors may persist even as you advance in your language learning journey. What matters most is achieving an advanced level of language understanding and the ability to communicate effectively, even if you make occasional mistakes.

B. Acceptance of Some Mistakes as Long as They Don’t Impede Communication

Recognize that some mistakes are less critical than others and that they may not significantly impede communication. For example, minor pronunciation errors in Chinese may not necessarily lead to misunderstandings, as long as your overall message remains clear. The key is to strike a balance between striving for improvement and accepting the inevitable imperfections in your language use.

V. Fossilisation in Native Speakers

A. Regional Accents and Idiosyncrasies

It’s important to remember that even native speakers may have fossilised errors in their language due to regional accents, dialects, or other idiosyncrasies. This means that even as a non-native speaker, you’re not alone in facing challenges related to fossilisation. Embrace the fact that language is an ever-evolving, fluid entity, and that no one speaks perfectly all the time.

B. Acknowledging the Shared Experience

Understanding that native speakers also grapple with fossilisation can help you feel more at ease with your own language learning journey. It’s a shared experience that unites language learners and speakers worldwide. By acknowledging this, you can focus on improving your communication skills and becoming a more effective speaker, rather than fixating solely on achieving an elusive notion of perfection.

VI. Strategies for Overcoming Fossilisation

A. One-on-One Instruction with a Teacher

One-on-one instruction with a qualified language teacher can be particularly helpful in addressing fossilisation. Teachers can provide personalised feedback, tailored exercises, and targeted practice to help you overcome specific problem areas. Regular sessions with a teacher can make a significant difference in your language learning progress and help you break through the intermediate plateau.

B. Immersion in the Target Language

Surrounding yourself with the target language can also help combat fossilisation. This means consuming media in the language, participating in language exchange programs, or even living in a country where the language is spoken. Immersion can help you internalise the nuances of the language, improve your understanding of cultural norms, and provide ample opportunities for authentic communication.

C. Continuous Learning and Adaptation

Finally, adopting a mindset of continuous learning and adaptation is essential for overcoming fossilisation. This means being open to change, embracing new ways of expressing yourself, and always striving for improvement. Language learning is a lifelong journey, and your willingness to grow and adapt will be the key to your success.

VII. Conclusion and a Warning!

Fossilisation is a common challenge faced by language learners, but it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. By understanding the different types of fossilisation, implementing targeted strategies to overcome them, and accepting that some errors are inevitable, you can continue to progress in your language learning journey. 

Many migrants have achieved good progress even in their 30s, 40s and 50s towards a more native-like language use.

移山者,始于垒土; yí shān zhě, shǐ yú lěi tǔ

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones”

Keep pushing forward, focusing on effective communication, and embracing the continuous process of learning, and you’ll be well on your way to overcoming the intermediate plateau and achieving advanced language proficiency.

And finally, a warning! Many self-proclaimed polyglots on youtube have very strong accents when they speak Chinese. This is especially true for those, that gain their fame by constantly switching languages and “surprising” their conversation partners with their language skills. Chinese is a particularly difficult language and you need to fully focus on this language for a while. Phonetics is particularly important in terms of avoiding fossilisation. Just be aware that some youtubers that are famous Chinese-learners often have a much better pronunciation and much less phonetic fossilisation compared to polyglot youtubers that switch up dozens of languages within a short video. This being said, learning Chinese is also very rewarding for aspiring polyglots