Fossilisation, Reflection and Learning Strategies – my ELT Ireland talk

Background to my talk at ELT Ireland on Fossilisation 

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been living in Germany for 13 years. On the one hand, I think of all the milestones that have passed and yes, 13 years makes sense. On the other hand, I think of my progress as a language learner and I feel a bit ashamed. Surely by now, it should be a lot better.

At the ELT Ireland conference last weekend, I talked about the verb ‘erinnern’ (remember).  I could not for the longest time get it into my head that it was reflexive, despite it coming up regularly at school, in conversations, on TV, etc. If you told me it was reflexive, I’d agree, but when I had to use it, I inevitably got it wrong.

My students, all adults at C1 or C2 level, have similar problems. For them, despite all the written and spoken input they get at work, English is just a tool used to get the job done, and as a result, they tend to focus on fluency over accuracy.

With their stubborn errors and the many examples of my own stalled development, fossilisation became a bit of an obsession.

Fossilisation, ‘the long term persistence of plateaus of non-target-like structures in the interlanguage of non-native speakers’ (Selinker and Lakshmanan, 1992, p.197) refers to the idea that a learner’s interlanguage system reaches a point where the development of some or all of their interlanguage forms ceases, without having reached a native-like state.  Han clarifies it by saying that despite ‘abundant exposure to input, adequate motivation to learn, and plentiful opportunity for communicative practice’ (2013, p.137) acquisition stops before the learner reaches target language mastery.

That describes me perfectly, and many of my students too. Most of our exposure to the language is in real world settings, outside the classroom environment. We want to communicate, we enjoy it, but we still keep making the same mistakes.

It seems reassuring on one hand to think ‘hey, it’s not me – it’s fossilisation!’ According to Selinker, ‘about 95% of the learners would never learn a target language regardless of age, instructions, input or learners’ will’ (Lee, 2009).

When I thought about it further, I realised it’s actually kinda depressing. The term fossilisation implies the end state when no further progress in that particular area or interlanguage subsystem will occur.  That means that my example of ‘erinnern’ wasn’t actually fossilisation. It took a while, but I did eventually figure out that it was reflexive. So the idea of just accepting that something has reached the end state raised all these questions.

Luckily when I dug deeper I found various people voicing the same concerns.

Questions about fossilisation

So conflicted!

Han (2013) says that some teachers embrace the concept, but falsely assign fossilisation to errors that are in fact not fossilised, while others refuse to believe that it exists, as this would imply a situation where no learning is happening. Understanding fossilisation would ‘lead to efforts to maximize learning while entertaining realistic expectations about the learning outcome, whereas ignorance would lead to use of non-differentiated strategies, which diminishes rather than enhances learning’  (Han, 2011, p.480)

I decided to side with the scholars who were suggesting that a more neutral term such as ‘stabilisation’ should be used (Mitchell et al., 2013), as it does not imply a permanent cessation of development, while keeping Han’s comment about differentiated strategies in mind.

First off, I looked at reasons why progress stalls, be it permanently (fossilisation) or temporarily (stabilisation).

In other words, the causes are age, attitude, motivation and acculturation.

This idea of learners resisting the process of acculturation, becoming part of the native speaker community, struck a chord with me. I had never really considered that learners might prefer to retain their ‘other’ identity, as learner or foreigner, which is ironic because … Lightbulb moment … that is exactly what I had been doing. Being an English speaker is a huge part of my identity. It has allowed me live in different countries, it influences my social life (my closest friends are all English speakers) and my home life (raising a bilingual child). I realise that, for me, it’s a serious barrier to progression. I wanted to be fluent, but at the same time retain my ‘other-ness’. No wonder I didn’t care about eliminating certain errors in grammar or pronunciation. Now I’ve figured out that to take action against fossilisation, I need to get everyone reflecting.

Why reflect?

But I discovered quickly that you can’t just tell people to stop and REFLECT. Reflection is very personal, not everyone is open to the idea immediately, and many will ask ’What am I supposed to do? How do I reflect?’ You need to give guidance.


There are a lot of resources online to help get you started. I found‘s 40 Reflection Questions a good place to start.

I found that introducing reflection takes time, regardless of the questions or prompts you decide to use. You can’t assume students will know what you want, or be confident or comfortable with it, but you can build up to it, and make it part of every lesson. You could just add a question for the class on what tasks they enjoyed most, or get them in pairs to talk about the things they found hard or difficult during the lesson or that week. As time goes on, and they get used to it, you can set more difficult questions, about their own learning and their feelings about their progress. We often gauge our own performance by comparing ourselves to others around us so not everyone might be comfortable talking about this in front of class. But the main goal of reflection is to get us thinking about our learning, and what works for us, what doesn’t and why that could be.

You could also encourage your students to keep a learning notebook. There are also journalling apps or websites. I tried Penzu on my phone, but I prefer paper and coloured pens! Old school!

What I use for my German evolved from a vocab notebook into something more like a diary where I write down random thoughts, questions about language, things I heard in passing, my goals, things that frustrate me. I find it useful to be able to look back and reflect on previous reflections. Despite being a C1/ C2 in German, I write in English. Anything else seems too much like homework and for me the focus is reflecting on my learning, not the reflecting being the learning. As a result, I think students should be able to choose which language they want to write in, and whether it is something they keep private or share with you. It will completely depend on who your students are, of course. If they write in English, you can offer to correct it for them, every now and again.

Once students are reflecting on the tasks they enjoy, their progress, where they are having difficulties, the next step is working out how to increase their success.

Strategies, the steps learners take to process, store and acquire the knowledge they are presented with, appear to be the key to success at learning. How successful a particular strategy is will depend on the learner and the situation, but Gass and Selinker say that helping learners identify which strategies work best for them gives them a sense of autonomy, which helps maintain motivation.

Despite all my interest in the idea of strategy training, I procrastinated for ages, reading a lot on the topic but not really doing anything about it in class, until I came across the book Modern Languages and Learning Strategies (1999, Grenfell and Harris). There was a task where you ask students to collaboratively translate a Dutch poem. I used it in my talk as I think it is ideal for demonstrating the benefits of strategy training, and also how easy it can be.

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There is also a lot of information on learning strategies online:

Helping learners learn:exploring strategy instruction in language classrooms across Europe, Vee Harris

An inventory of useful learning strategies.

Language Learning Strategies: Theory and Research, Carol Griffiths

Sometimes learning is not transparent for students. I can’t tell you how many times adult students have said to me, ‘I had English at school but I never learned much – my teacher wasn’t very good.’ They see their success or lack of success as being the responsibility of the teacher. I think reflection and strategy training makes learning more manageable and success more achievable. I’ve decided 2018 is now the Year of Reflection, for me with my German, for my C1 groups and later on in the year, I’m going to try it out with some university students – so I will post about the experiment. Stay tuned! 😉

Gass, S.M. and Selinker, L., 2008. Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course. Routledge.

Grenfell, M. and Harris, V., 1999. Modern languages and learning strategies: In theory and practice. Psychology Press.

Han, Z., 2013. Forty years later: Updating the fossilization hypothesis. Language Teaching, 46(2), pp.133-171.

Han, Z., 2011. Fossilization: A classic concern of SLA research. The Routledge handbook of second language acquisition, pp.476-490.

Lee, E., 2009. Issues in fossilization and stabilization. Linguistic Research, 26(2), pp.151-166.

Mezirow, J., 1990. How critical reflection triggers transformative learning. Fostering critical reflection in adulthood, 1, pp.20.

Mitchell, R., Myles, F. and Marsden, E., 2013. Second language learning theories. Routledge.

Selinker, L. and Lakshmanan, U. 1992. Language transfer and fossilization: The multiple effects principle. Language transfer in language learning, pp.197-216.


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