11 June 2011

Good news! Fossilised errors don't exist!

It has been claimed that errors that are made frequently enough "fossilise" -- that is to say that they "harden" and become difficult to fix.  This, I feel, is overstating the case.  It's certainly easier to learn something correct to begin with than to have to "unlearn" it later in order to learn the correct form, but even then, it may be less of a big deal than people think.

The evidence

I learned French at high school from first year, and took direct entry into 3rd-year Italian as an additional language when I got the chance.  I learned Italian quicker than French.  Years later, I picked up Spanish, and learned it quicker than Italian.   More recently still, I picked up Catalan... at lightning speed.

Well, that's to be expected, right?  They are closely related languages after all.

But wait... if they are really similar, then one could describe one language in terms of another language and a set of differences.  And if you think about it, an "error" is no different from a "difference" in cognitive terms -- the only distinction is that an error is a difference that isn't shared with a whole linguistic group.

So if fossilised errors really were such a big thing, wouldn't it have been harder for me to learn Spanish after Italian, rather than easier?

And this even holds as we get to languages increasingly distant from each other, because all we're doing is increasing the number of differences, which fossilised error theory claims would make things difficult.

Taken to its logical conclusion, fossilised error theory would make adult language learning an impossible task, because every language point we learn can be considered at attempt to overcome a fossilised language pattern -- ie the equivalent language point in the native language.

The paradox propounded by promoters of fossilised errors

The idea of a fossilised error is used as a warning against attempting to say things you don't know how to.  This is pretty logical.  But the idea of fossilised errors is particularly popular among the learn-by-listening crowd.  Take the site Antimoon, and what they call "myths" about language learning:
Myth #2: "The best way to learn a foreign language is to speak it"
Myth #3: "It is OK to make mistakes"
Myth #4: "As a beginner, you're bound to make a lot of mistakes"
Basically, they reckon that if you make lots of mistakes, they will fossilise and you will learn badly.  So you should listen to and read lots of examples so that you know it well before you attempt to say it.

But that's an inconsistent argument.  How can it be that we learn mistakes by speaking and learn correct language by listening?  Internally, the brain treats "correct language" and "errors" in the same way -- they're both just language forms.

So if it's the speaking that teaches us our errors, surely it's also the speaking that teaches us our correct language too?  I mean if speaking does fossilise language, surely it's to our advantage to use that to fossilise good language?


It's certainly a good idea to learn things properly from the word go, because it's easier.  Languages are internally more consistent, logical and systematic than many people give them credit for, and the real danger is that errors may distort the overall picture of the language, but they are never fatal and incurable.

It's better to avoid errors, but don't start distinguishing between "fresh" and "fossilised" errors and only attack the "fresh" ones.  Do not give up, because... well, it's just lazy.  If you start using "fossilisation" as an excuse, you'll find yourself making excuses for all your errors and you'll never really get as good at the language as you would like.


kmart said...

...and we learnt our first langugae by making huge amounts of errors and having them corrected - I don't know anyone with "fossilized" speech patterns dating from their toddler years!

Anonymous said...

I suppose that like many things in our behaviour this is to a great deal a matter of motivation. Looking outwith languages, one would think that one of the most fossilized patterns in our brains is first looking to the left (or right, delete as applicable) before crossing a road, the way they were drumming it into our heads when we were children. Yet I haven't yet met anybody unable to overcome this pattern, very quickly too, when they found themselves in a country with the opposite driving system, even if that happened in a much more mature age. Naturally, as it's a matter of personal safety.

Nìall Beag said...

Ah, Kmart, I thought you knew me better than that. ;-) As far as I'm concerned, the way kids learn languages is irrelevant to the way adults do...

I think you've hit the nail on the head there. One of the biggest problems language learners is getting caught in the "good enough" trap, where there's no apparent need and hence no motivation to change the old erroneous habits. But there's always an underlying need, and maybe that's where the illusion of fossilisation comes in: people see the symptom, not the root cause, so attack the wrong thing.

Anonymous said...

I fail to see your point.
"How can it be that we learn mistakes by speaking and learn correct language by listening?"

Well, because (hopefully) the material we're listening to will not contain mistakes. We recognize mistakes as mistakes because we are not familiar with such expressions. If you start using mistakes, they will become familiar to you and you won't be able to recognize them as mistakes. For the same reason, (in my opinion) learning materials should not give examples of incorrect usage unless it's absolutely necessary.