Fossilization in second language acquisition: A Vygotskian perspective

Gay N Washburn, University of Pennsylvania


Fossilization, or the cessation of learning, is recognized as a widespread phenomenon in second language acquisition. Although we have descriptions of fossilized interlanguages (Agnello, 1977; Bean, 1990; Bruzzese, 1977; Sotillo, 1987), researchers have not identified the linguistic behavior of those whose second language acquisition has ceased. This study seeks to identify some characteristics of linguistic behavior that distinguishes fossilized nonnative speakers from those who are still learning. Vygotskian theory suggests that differences might be found between these two groups in performance on tasks which challenge the linguistic abilities of the speakers. Four hypotheses, concerning (1) the use of imitation, (2) the ability to learn short-term, (3) the use of object- and other-regulation, and (4) the use of private speech were tested with two groups of English as a second language speakers, one fossilized and one nonfossilized. The eighteen subjects were all matriculated undergraduates at an American university and had lived in the U.S. from 6 months to 7 years. It was found that, compared to the nonfossilized group, the fossilized speakers had more difficulty producing the structures required in a short term learning task and as they endeavored to do so, they needed more turns and produced more regressions (nontargetlike forms that had been previously used targetlike). Although counts of instances of use of object- and other-regulation as well as private speech showed no differences in a picture narrative task, imitation of the interlocutor's speech was significantly less for the fossilized subjects than for the nonfossilized subjects. However, comparison of performances on an imitation/grammaticality judgment task and a structured interview showed that the nonfossilized speakers were more consistent in use or non-use of targetlike forms across tasks than were the fossilized speakers. These findings suggest that the interlanguage of fossilized speakers is more variable than that of nonfossilized speakers, and that the fossilized speakers are less sensitive to the forms provided in the input, as well as less able to maintain new, targetlike forms in their own speech.

Subject Area

Language arts|Bilingual education|Multicultural education|Linguistics

Recommended Citation

Washburn, Gay N, "Fossilization in second language acquisition: A Vygotskian perspective" (1991). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9212021.