Always Learning!

The world through the prism of my mind

Interlanguage and fossilization – thoughts of the language learner

Posted by Alexandre Rafalovitch on October 24, 2006

I got suckered again. Steve Kaufmann – founder of has been asked by a learner who is also studying to be a second language teacher about the concepts of interlanguage and fossilization. Given that Steve does not hold much respect for educational theories, I thought it would be interesting to see him stretched a bit on the concepts that he must have observed first hands multiple times. My mistake. But I did spend time thinking about it, so I might as well put it down.

Interlanguage is basically a concept that while learning a language L2, a person native in language L1 will go through particular stages dependent on the original language. Interlanguage is acknowledging that those stages exist, that they can be defined and, therefore, some special rules can be applied to them.

As an example, going from Russian (L1) to English (L2) I did not have much problem with tenses and genders, because both languages have it and I just had to map the concepts. A friend of mine with Chinese as a first language has to work extra hard with he/she or future/past tenses in English, because in chinese (from what I understand) those aspects are inferred through context or through standalone words line ‘yesterday/today/tomorrow’ without affecting a sentence further on (like English he/she, went/go/will go) . On the other hand, I have major problems with a/the because Russian does not have those constructs.

So, does interlanguage matter to the learner? Steve said it does not, which I have no problem agreeing with. Learner needs to learn and the esoteric labels are not going to help in any way. However, Steve continued to say that because the concepts are not much use to the learner, they are not useful to the teacher as well. And here is where we strongly disagree.

In the business, there is a concept of Capability Maturity Model (CMM). According to that concept, a (good) company will progress through stages of improvement. Basically, the company will start with results happening because there are a couple of very good people just knowing what to do. Then, as it grows, it needs to figure out ways to not depend on just those people and being able to train anybody else to be as good or better. So the company climbs up the CMM lader, which (among other things) means it has to define terms for particular situations and best ways to react to those situations.

So, how is CMM related to the interlanguage concept in ESL? Without this concept, a teacher has to treat every student’s attempt to learn language as completely individual progress without any expected progression steps. This means no decision can be made on the sequence in which L2 concepts are presented, no expectations on how long something will take to teach can be made and no learning shortcuts (X is just like Y in your language) are allowed. This may work in one-on-one learning setup where both student and teacher have infinite time, but it is certainly not the most efficient way.

With the concept of interlanguage, one can actually look ahead and know that Chinese native speaker will need a special attention with he/she concepts and that Russian native speaker will need extra help with a/the concepts. There could be specialised learning material for a particular L1->L2 path. With smart language teaching sofware, there could even be a way to explain the concept by contrasting and comparing the constructs in L2 and L1 language.

Again, none of this meta-knowledge is very useful to the learner, but without it, the teachers as a profession cannot climb the CMM ladder and will not be able to efficiently scale beyond one-on-one mentor model that is no longer economically feasible for most people.

From what I can see, Steve’s company is currently running at CMM level 1 or – at best – 2, so they haven’t had the need to introduce the concepts of interlanguage. That, in my eyes, is not the reason to spent 10 minutes renouncing it.

Same thing with fossilization – a term for somebody’s state of learning where they no longer get better even though they are exposed to more language. For some reason, Steve thought it was a derogative term applied to a person and therefore treated it as a pep talk opportunity to convince people to never give up. Great idea, but not necessarily applicable to the question. Under the law of diminishing return, at some point the cost of studying further does not bring any additional visible benefits. For example, most of the ESL learners do not bother with past perfect tense constructs as it is not useful all that often and has subtlety that can be also expressed in simpler ways. So, when people stop learning the language, that’s their fossilization point. There is nothing special about that term, it just exists so that language teachers did not have to reinvent the term.

Of course, if a learner is not happy with the state of their language and need to have it improved, then we are talking about methods and motivation and Steve’s pep talk on never giving up becomes justified. It is just that motivation is a completely different issue than the one asked about originally.

In summary – interlanguage, fossilization and many other concepts used in L2 acquisition studies are there because the language teaching professions needed to get better as a group, rather than rely on heroic and misaligned efforts of individual teachers. To a person outside of that group (and Steve has repeatedly distanced himself from that group), the jargon may seem meaningless and useless. That does not mean, that the jargon is useless (of course, it is only useful when it does have a well-defined meaning).

Disclaimer: I am not a language teacher. I just like to understand meta-concepts involved. My position might be just as misguided to a knowledgable educator, as Steve’s position feel to me. I have tried to provide my reasoning and links and my comment box is always open to corrections.

(Update: November 13th, nearly a month later)

Gentle Reader :-), why are you here? This article – completely against my expectations – had more visitors than anything else I have written to date. Even now, I get a couple of visitors each day coming in, reading the article and leaving.

Are you here, because you had read Steve’s article and wanted to see my side? Are you here, because you googled for the term interlanguage and fossilization and opened all of the first ten results (you are probably not reading this then)? Or are you here because the topics in the discussion are important to you and I said something of interest (what)?

I do not think my article has any great wisdom in it, just connecting dots that others I am sure have done better. The topic is fairly obscure, even if important for some. Tell me, please, what is it that you are looking for here, as your continuous attention makes no sense to me, happy as I am to receive it. The comment section is open and is begging to be used.


16 Responses to “Interlanguage and fossilization – thoughts of the language learner”

  1. Keith said

    I can see the need for a term such as fossilization however it sounds a bit contradicting as you have written it as a “state of learning.” It’s more like a state of NOT learning.

    I cannot see any need for the term interlanguage. Why don’t they just call it, “the stages of learning?” Although, it doesn’t seem to me that stages can be defined. Every learner will be in a different place. One will know A but not B and the other one will know B but not A. So, it’s not like you can just progress through each “stage.” The teacher cannot say, “Aha! He knows B so I don’t need to teach him A.”

    If you need any help with understanding the difference between the uses of “a” and “the,” just drop me a line. I have a special talent for explaining just that particular point.

  2. Hi Keith,

    Thanks for the comments. I think ‘state of learning’ or ‘state of not learning’ is a bit like talking about glass half-full or half-empty. Since one was (presumably) learning before she stopped, to me she has achieved the ‘end-state’ of learning. But, I don’t really mind the exact explanation, as long as the term itself is clear.

    With interlanguage, I must be not very clear. Yes, we you look at an individual learner or compare two individual learners, you can just talk very specific A, B skills. However, if you look at learners in total, additional patterns appear when it becomes useful to have ‘interlanguage’ term and some special reasoning applied to it.

    Similar issue has happened in biology/genetics. Until recently, each gene was analysed individually. Then, somebody had a bright idea to look at many genes at once (statistically) and try to see if extra patterns emerged. This was so successful, that a whole new branch of science now exists – bioinformatics.

    I am saying that interlanguage is a term which allows to bring together all that knowledge glipsed from teaching large number of students.

    As to the general question of “why don’t they just call it ABCXYZ”, it is because any clique needs a short and snappy term that is not polluted by common usage. It is a bit like a consumer brand. When you say Toyota (outside of Japan at least), people know that you are referring to the particular car brand. If you just say cool/hot/nice car, to different people it will mean different things.

    And thank you for the offer of explaining a/the. At the moment, I am content with what I have (reached my own fossilization 🙂 ), but I will keep your offer in mind if the issue becomes important again.

  3. sukumaran said

    I am an English teacher in Malaysia; I am of Indian origin and I teach in a Cjinese school. I am experimenting with a new hypothesis for my school, and we intend to implement ‘The Kok Lanas Project’ in the next academic year 2007. I wanted to have more on interlanguage and your article came by during my search. Thanks; Keep in touch.

  4. Sukumaran,

    Thank you for commenting and sharing your plans. It tells me that perhaps my article is useful beyond the individual conversation it was a part of.

    Maybe I will write more about my language experience later.

  5. A great article about why professions need their specialised terms is Why Web 2.0 is more than a buzzword

  6. Since you asked, I actually googled “computational linguistics interlanguage” to get this page – who knows how you got on the 2nd page of results.

  7. Thank you for the feedback David.

    I suspect I am fairly high up because not too many people write about computational linguistics and interlanguage, them being two schools of thought usually in disagreement.

    Also, most of those who do write, don’t link to each other, which gives them a low rank in search-engines. Hopefully, that will change, as I had troubles finding anything interesting on the topic when I did the searches myself.

  8. allensanjuan said

    hi there. i think your ideas are good. i have a subject Language Acquisition Theories – it’s fairly boring and i can’t see its relevance in language teaching. Many theories disprove one another. Theories remain theories and aren’t useful in the classroom.

  9. Amelia said

    Hi, Alexandre:
    I have read your piece of information and I find it very well explained. As a Spanish teacher teaching German in Spain, it happens to me that I often find structures from the English language / or false friends in the essays that my students bring to me.
    I find the terms quite necessary, otherwise we teacher would be difficult or too long to describe, these “words” like fossilization and interlanguage are a shortcut to describe processes of learning.

    And to tell some truth, some tutors and experts are debatting about it and they earn respect because at least someone cares to give the stages and processes of learning a bit of an academic realm. Any other opinion against this, I respect. But as a teacher in a Polithecnic School for Engineering, with louds of experts in computers and statistics buzz around, I am happy to be able to show some scientific nomenclature on the subject “language learning”
    Thank you

  10. McKale said


    I see that this page is very old, but I wanted to clarify/add something about the term “interlanguage”, as the first poster said “I cannot see any need for the term interlanguage. Why don’t they just call it, “the stages of learning?” Although, it doesn’t seem to me that stages can be defined. Every learner will be in a different place. One will know A but not B and the other one will know B but not A. So, it’s not like you can just progress through each “stage.” The teacher cannot say, “Aha! He knows B so I don’t need to teach him A.” and this is not at all what the term “interlanguage” means.

    Interlanguage (and this is in my own words, so forgive the laymans) is basically the language that each individual uses in their mind to connect two (or more) languages. Its the way in which the learner of an L2 formats that TL (target language) into their brain to help learn/remember/etc the L2, and is usually used coinciding with their L1. It is interlanguage because usually it is not just your L1 or L2, but rather your own made-up set of rules, formatted specifically by & for you. It is “inter” because it is “between” (more or less) the two languages. For example, I speak English & Spanish, and have studied Russian, Italian, & Arabic, and my “interlanguage method” in order to retain as much of whichever TL as possible, is to continuously compare the languages to each other.

    Well, I hope that was helpful, rather than harmful, to whoever may read this page after me.

  11. Airis said

    While I do admit that you have a great mind, I belive your understanding of the concepts are a bit wrong.

    Interlanguage is not just a concept wherein learners go through stages of language acquisition. It is a separate language system between the first and second languages which a learner goes throuh. It has five processes, according to Selinker. The knowledge of this intermediary language and the processes that the learner goes through while learning the language is important because it will help the teacher in preventing errors or helping out the students in correcting their errors.

    Fossilization, on the other hand is not the state wherein the learner becomes unable to learn new things. S/he will be able to learn but not use it properly because some structures or use of the language has become fossilized within the learner. But it does not mean that the learner does not know the correct structure. Again, with the knowledge of fossilization, the teacher will know how to prevent it, enabling the learner to progress in language learning.

    At least, as a language major, this is my understanding of these terms.

  12. I think Selinker (and most other theories) work with assumption of one base language and one second language. So, it is possible to draw a path from L1 to L2 and perhaps even name the stages.

    I wonder how it applies to situation like McKale’s with several L1 level languages and one or more previously learned additional languages. I bet the stages get more confused (or possibly more compressed).

    However, with enough people, I think it should still be possible to talk about gaps in knowledge and/or similarities that are caused by source/target combination of languages. It is not something that could have been reliably looked at before(due to small class sizes), but with internet based training, there is an opportunity to segment the students into still sizable groups however complex the common criterias are.

  13. Lynette said

    Hello David,

    It is amazing to be in the mix of your readers, coming from various perspectives.

    I was fortunate to have found you while trying to discern the stages of interlanguage. I have a final coming up and like most, the guide is ambiguous.

    With your discourse and other studies (including available text) I believe, “by Job. I ‘ave it!” Thanx :*)

  14. Tara said

    Hello, very interesting to read these opinions.

    I am currently studying a Bilingual Ed degree in Spain and I am supposed to choose five authors that have made an important impact on verbal behaviourism, interlanguage, DAL, psycholinguistics, fossilization.

    I have chosen Chomsky, Skinner, Bley-Vroman, Ellis, Lenneberg…but I feel like this may be a mistake if I am supposed to defend that they are have helped the study of linguistics with the aforementioned concepts. What about Selinker? Any disagreements? Is there anyone that is soooo important in this field that I should not leave out?

  15. SAFL said

    i am here because im trying to find the real meaning of interlanguage and fossilization.. before reading this, i thought i knw what interlanguage is, but now im confused. should i trust what Rod Ellis wrote? or should i burn the book?

  16. Raquel said

    In response to your update:

    I am currently a Second Language Learner of both French and Portuguese. My Portuguese is near fluency but is strongly reliant on interlanguage structures and dangerously close to fossilizing (if it hasn’t already). I Googled “how to overcome interlinguage fossilization” and came across your post which I’ve found clear and quite helpful. 🙂

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