So, it's been a few years into your language learning journey, and:

  • you’ve noticed you keep repeatedly make the same mistakes
  • you feel stuck, and you don’t know why you aren’t improving

Let me break it to you — chances are you’ve become fossilized!

Joking aside, language fossilization is one of the most common reasons students lose motivation to continue learning; often without realizing that the solution is in their hands.

Luckily, all is not lost.

Becoming aware of this phenomenon is the first step to preventing it.


What language fossilization is, and the importance of preventing it

This curious notion was first coined in 1972 by linguistics professor Larry Selinker, in his paper ‘Interlanguage’ (IL), but the seedling of the concept dates as back as early as the fifties.

In the world of second language acquisition, fossilization refers to the stage at which a speaker appears to cease learning, thereby reaching a learning “plateau”. When you consistently make the same mistakes — often unknowingly — those mistakes become a fixed part of your language repertoire, thus preventing you from sounding natural and making you seem less fluent than you actually are.

In Selinker's own (jargon-laden) words:

Fossilization, a mechanism which also exists in this latent psychological structure, underlies surface linguistic material which speakers will tend to keep in their [interlanguage] productive performance, no matter what the age of the learner or the amount of instruction [they] receive in the [target language].
A model of a fossil of a giant toothed platypus from the Riversleigh fossil fields. About a metre long and more than twice the size of platypus today.
Photo by David Clode / Unsplash

While there are many reasons as to why fossilization may occur, first language interference and overgeneralization seem to be the main culprits. This interference of the first language (L1) causes the learner to make repeated mistakes which, if not corrected in time, become ingrained in the production of their second language (L2) and therefore difficult to change.

Basically, fossilization refers to L2 mistakes that become habitual.

There’s much debate among researchers: we haven't been able to decisively answer whether this plateau can be avoided at all, let alone if it can be reversed after the speaker has reached a certain level. (It can be hard to fix these mistakes because the speaker is almost never aware they are even making these errors, as they are small and rarely hinder communication. Most people wouldn’t interrupt someone to correct any mistakes, let alone very small ones, so as not to be rude or ruin the flow of conversation.)

Luckily, thanks to the latest discoveries in neuroplasticity, we now know it’s possible to make changes in our brains by creating new neural pathways — at any age — which means we can most likely revert our fossilized mistakes and improve brain health.

Some common examples of fossilized speech in Spanish:

  • ❌ Mi hijo es 26 años.
    ✅ Él tiene 26 años
    My son [is/has] 26 years.
    (A common L1 interference among English speakers. In Spanish, you "have" years, rather than "being" them.)
  • ❌ Ella me habló que…
    ✅ Ella me dijo que…’.
    She [talked/said] to me
  • Actualmente quiero decir otra cosa.
    De hecho quiero decir otra cosa.
    [Currently/actually] I want to say something else.
    (Another common L1 interference among English speakers. While "actualmente" looks like "actually", it means "currently" in Spanish.)
  • ❌ Pala mí…
    ✅ Para mí
    (A common phonetical overgeneralization from a Chinese student when the ‘r’ is pronounced as an ‘l’)

“Interlanguage” and language fossilization

We can’t talk about fossilization without explaining the concept of interlanguage, as one cannot exist without the other.

Think of interlanguage (IL) as being like a bridge. A unique bridge that we foreign language learners use to slowly work our way across until that blissful moment when you finally become able to start communicating and being understood in your target language. Each bridge is unique, and so is each person’s interlanguage. This is to say that each learner develops their own way of “connecting the dots” as they progress and learn more vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation rules. In trying to cross that bridge we often retrace our steps and make assumptions or predictions about how the next steps look like based on the stones of knowledge we’ve previously stepped on. And so it happens that our L1 seeps into our IL as we try to use the new features we’ve learned — whether by overgeneralizing certain grammar or speaking rules or by directly translating from our L1 to the L2.

Key point:

When we try to express something new in our target language but aren’t exactly sure how, we “fall back” on the logic of our native language in order to try to fill that gap. This inevitably leads to mistakes, some larger and some smaller, because the logic of our native language doesn’t perfectly overlap with that of our target languages.

Thought of as a language in and of itself, interlanguage became a very important concept in second language acquisition. It gave linguists a new way of conceptualizing the language learner's thought process, and it also revealed just how susceptible we are to "fossilization" — at any stage of proficiency. Most importantly, awareness of these things allowed use to develop strategies learners or teachers could use to prevent or revert language fossilization.

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7 strategies to prevent and overcome fossilization.

I've given over 5,000 one-on-one Spanish lessons. Here are some of the most effective techniques I've found (or seen students employ) to help deal with fossilization;

[1] Consciously notice/look out for mistakes

This is, I’d say, the most important strategy of all — and perhaps the hardest. If you can consciously start noticing the differences between your IL (interlanguage)/L2 efforts and the way a native speaker talks, you’re on your way toward overcoming fossilized speech.

Try watching movies like this:

  • Start by carefully watching your favorite shows or movies in Spanish, with and without subtitles.
  • Stop the video and go back: analyze their body language, pronunciation, etc.
  • Make it part of a study session to analyze every other episode, or even 5–10 minutes of each episode.

Try listening to podcasts mindfully:

  • Listen without subtitles first (choose a podcast suited to your level!) — just try to get the tone and the main idea.
  • Afterwards, listen again, but read along with the transcription: go over all unknown vocabulary and grammar you missed the first time around.
  • Make note of the words/phrases you missed the first time around: keep a record of these "missed words" in a notebook and go over them frequently.

[2] Kind and effective corrections

We are social beings, and even though different people are motivated by different things, learning a foreign language will inevitably lead you to connect you with other humans. As such, find someone who can correct your errors kindly and effectively.

I'm a fluent non-native speaker of English and Serbian, and I actively request that my native speaker friends correct me when I make a mistake, or use a phrase that sounds funny or awkward. How else will I learn? I prefer to be corrected on the spot, but you should try what works best for you.

If a native speaker friend isn’t an option, find a suitable teacher or tutor and explicitly ask them to point out errors that they notice you make repeatedly — both spoken and written ones. Then, ask them to keep a journal of instances where they notice you make those errors, and to send them to you after the lesson ends.

[3] The sound of your own voice

Record yourself talking about the things you usually do, using the structures, phrases and pronunciation habits you’ve learned. Next, listen to the recording of yourself speaking and see if you can detect pronunciation errors. If possible, transcribe what you’ve recorded and, looking at your written transcription, see if you can catch anything unusual now that your speech is in writing. If you feel you are unable to hear your mistakes, ask a teacher or a native speaker friend to listen to you and then make corrections.

You may feel silly at first but, believe me, being able to get out of your head and actually hear yourself using the language you’re learning is a powerful way to connect with your internal process and find the motivation to improve. You'll notice that your voice sounds different when you're talking vs when you're listening to a recording of yourself, and this is important to realize: to other people, you sound like you do in the recording.

Finding a good podcast (or even a textbook, if it comes with audio) is also a good idea: it gives you both a place to start finding ideas about things to practice and also a native speaker you can use for examples/references.

Generally speaking, start paying closer attention to the way natives speak and the way you speak. Can you find any similarities or differences?

Boy writing ideas in a Diary at Cafe
Photo by Dollar Gill / Unsplash

[4] Find a buddy

Everything’s better with a friend, and what better encouragement is there than learning a language together? This is the perfect opportunity to get friendly feedback without worrying about making mistakes or what your teacher will say. Peer editing can be a useful way to figure out what kind of mistakes you’re making, as we often don’t know we’re making certain subtle mistakes or otherwise can’t pick up on them on our own.

Depending on your level, start with basic sentences, then write down a set of open-ended questions to ask each other. As you reply, get your friend to jot down the errors you make. Before the next question is asked, share what both of you noticed. Open-ended questions promote giving “full” answers rather than a simple “yes” or “no”. If you’re not sure how to make an open-ended question, just try to ask questions that start with “Why?” “How?” and “What?”.

[5] Make it meaningful

Establishing an emotional connection to anything you do will motivate you to do whatever it is that you’ve set your mind to. Start by writing simple sentences in Spanish about anything you’re feeling — your life, your friends, the things you’re passionate about — anything that connects your life to the language you’re learning. From there, start making more complex sentences. Create an emotional bond.

A good way of doing this is to start using the language for the reason you got into learning it in the first place.

  • Decided to learn Spanish to read your favorite writers? Great, start reading one of their books today. You can get into the habit of reading a page a day.
  • Chose to learn it to watch TV shows or movies without subtitles? Try watching one today, with or without subtitles.
  • Learned Spanish because you love salsa? Go take a salsa class in Spanish tonight!

[6] Be your own psychotherapist

Just as what you do with other areas of your life, once you’ve identified some of your fossilized speech, try and analyze why you are making that particular mistake. (E.g., Are you directly translating from your mother tongue? Why is it that you are you using “hablar”(to speak) in a sentence when “decir”(to say) is called for? Are you pronouncing your “t” or “d” (or other sounds) like you would in your mother tongue rather than as they are in your target language?).

Again, if you feel you can’t figure out your mistakes, get the help of a teacher. Ask them to tell you what they notice, and to give you a list of the mistakes you make the most. Even if you only take a few lessons, it’ll give you a head start so that you can continue on your own from there.

[7] Practice makes perfect

And, finally, go back to these mistakes frequently: practice and repeat. It’s necessary to return to your mistakes many times before they enter into your long-term memory and become automatic.

Research suggests learning is more productive if you repeat these corrections in short bursts throughout the day, and also at weekly intervals. Don't wait until two or three hours before the test to do this revision! The information won’t stick in your brain as effectively as it would have if you had instead cut it into chunks and practiced over a period of time.

Put your “mistakes” in different places (e.g. around your house, in your car, at your workplace). Anywhere where you know you’ll run into them constantly. When you can, spend 2–3 minutes actively focusing on the error at hand. Then, repeat the words and phrases with the error corrected, and finally create new sentences using the corrected form to practice later.

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Final words

Even if fossilization won’t prevent you from communicating or being understood, it can have some negative downsides.  Perhaps most importantly, it can make you sound unnatural or less fluent — regardless of how much vocabulary or grammar you know — and in turn discourage you from learning.

Some of the most common mistakes include using the wrong conjugation or subject/verb agreement; pronunciation issues; preposition mistakes; and those tricky “false friends”. Research suggests that these mistakes may be shaped by negative language transfer from your mother tongue, your prior learning strategies, and even your current strategies — fossilization is a constantly evolving phenomenon, and it might happen at any stage of the learning process.

Luckily for all of us language enthusiasts, the discovery of neuroplasticity has given us the hope we needed: We can create new connections in our brains and change previously learned concepts until the day we die! We just need to become aware of what those fossilized mistakes are first, analyze them, listen to them, invite friends to talk about them, and then set ourselves to work to change them.

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