Interlanguage and fossilization – thoughts of the language learner

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.