WS for * TESL * TEFL * TESOL * ESL * EFL * ESOL * and other languages          Home   Free English Lessons   Learners Links   Guestbook 

******************************************************** Learners - look up new vocabulary in a free dictionary here.                 Teachers - join the WS Organization & WS Discussion Group here. ********************************************************

Article EL Gazette – October 2003

Input. Output. That’s language acquisition in a nutshell. It may not be as extensive a theory as Chomsky or Krashen, but doesn’t language always develop in basically the same way for each and every one of us? Information comes in, we process it, and something new comes out. Communication occurs. If no information is put in, very little will come out.

Learning a first language is a piece of cake. There’s usually lots of input, friendly encouragement and practice to be had before the teachers have a chance to test our skills. Fortunately, we’re normally very well prepared for them by that stage. We already have an extensive vocabulary and by some magic are able to use our words in a mostly correct grammatical style. Teachers then help to refine and polish – under a good set of conditions.

Second languages cause more problems. There’s generally a lot less input and something called interference – when the first language hinders or distorts the learning of a second language. In addition, we seem to be encouraged to run before we can walk, with the result that we tend to fall over a lot.

The learning process might typically go something like this: A little vocabulary learning combined with lots of early grammatical input and exercises. The results of such early testing are usually far from perfect. Some questions may be answered correctly but a lot of errors are usually made as well. But do we really learn from these mistakes or do they just serve to create a confusion that can develop into bad habits? What does this process do to confidence, enjoyment levels, motivation and performance? Why is it so necessary to rush through a lot of grammar topics very early on in the learning curve? Can people cope with this approach? Or could it be a major cause of fossilization – when non-standard language becomes ingrained? What other approaches might lead to a more efficient and enjoyable language learning process? It is, of course, easier to ask such questions than to answer them.

Most people are aware of the fossilization problem, but its roots are hard to define and there’s no quick cure. Bad grammar and pronunciation habits can be increasingly hard to break over time. They occur once learners have developed a reasonable understanding of the language, but in the wrong order. With such an early emphasis on testing, it is also not surprising that students become disheartened at continually making lots of mistakes. Teachers feel forced to repeat and revise grammar, the process becomes increasingly tiring and some students may even switch off totally. Frustration understandably translates into a negative attitude towards grammar and they may even give up on it a little and let their problems deepen. Fossilization – or just bored rigid?

Meanwhile, their understanding is steadily improving through learning more vocabulary. This process often only involves remembering lists of translations, rather than using new words in an active manner. Such a learning strategy, combined with an early, shallow introduction to grammar topics, can also be counter-productive - a recipe for bad habits and the following typical scenario:

German students wanting to know the meaning of a new word will often ask their teacher

“what means ******** ?” instead of “what does ******** mean?”.

This “word for word” translation ( Was bedeutet ******** ?) happens on a regular basis even with so-called “advanced” students. Then, once corrected, they may well go on to say something like “ Yes, I must make more homework”!

How language seems to fossilize.

The example above describes what appears to be a common process. Students tend to gradually become more fluent and easily understood even though they are still making basic grammatical errors. Teachers and others tend to correct them less. Students therefore assume that what they are saying is correct or good enough and continue to speak and write using the same incorrect structures (probably from their own first language grammatical patterns, using word-for-word translations). Bad habits are developed that become increasingly hard to break and the incentive to correct them is low because of the effort required. Fossilization occurs with both teachers and students accepting it as an almost inevitable part of second language acquisition. First language interference and lack of exposure to the second language is usually blamed..

Students who are fairly fluent in the second language appear to be an endorsement of current teaching methods. But the inability to write a formal letter, for example, tells a completely different story. This criticism is only based on my observations but, assuming that these have some substance, steps can be taken to prevent fossilization happening in the first place.

Fossilization prevention:

1. Help students to concentrate more on vocabulary, understanding and exposure to correct structures during the early phases - in a manner that encourages more learner autonomy outside of the classroom.
2. Important new words should be investigated, practised, organised and checked in a more logical fashion. This process could take place in a well-organized vocabulary notebook which moves away from complete reliance on translations as quickly as possible. (see link to website below)
3. Earlier exposure to grammar should be more selective and deeper. Some good grammatical habits would, in any case, be passively gained by reading / copying down correct sentences found in dictionaries etc during the vocabulary development process.
4. Allocate more time to genuine classroom interaction and communication - encourage students to bring personally interesting material with them for readings, dictations, discussion and general language expansion.
5. Place greater emphasis on grammar at a later stage when students are far more capable of dealing with this vitally important topic.

The ideas above encourage more learning by doing. Vocabulary is seen as the starting point of the process, with individual words being the foundations on which to start building - after investigating how those words are correctly used. Reliance on translation and early testing is minimised, reducing exposure to the sort of errors that may later become big, bad fossilized habits.

Will McCulloch

© Copyright 2003 - 2006 Will McCulloch