Arresting Fossilization

Susanne Gardner offers solutions to the case of an incarcerated adult second language learner whose progress has halted

Language fossilization is a broad term used to describe many forms of arrested progress in second language (L2) acquisition. This arrested progress can occur in one or more specific features of the target language, and many teachers and researchers consider fossilization an unavoidable process. Even so, it remains the scourge of language instructors who see test scores plateau and decrease. How does this fossilization develop and how can teachers address the needs of their fossilized students? There are many different theories on how and why fossilization occurs in some students but not in others. These theories include, but are not limited to: first language (L1) interference; illiteracy in the L1; no emotional, psychological, or social attachment to the L2 environment or culture; age of arrival in the L2 community; existence and manner of corrective feedback, and insufficient comprehensible input of, and lack of opportunity, to use the new target language. These factors are all important and interlinked, and they all contribute to the success of language learning.
There is a lot of current research on the definition(s) of fossilization and the causes thereof. This article, however, is written from a practitioner’s point of view: a study of an adult fossilized learner and what teaching methodologies have been successful for him.
The ESL program at the Maryland Correctional Institution (MCI-J) in Jessup, Maryland, enrolls 24 medium-security Hispanic men separated into two classes morning and afternoon. Each class runs for three hours and teaches the four basic skills: listening, speaking, reading, writing. If students do not currently have a General Education Diploma (GED), they have mandatory school attendance for 120 days, after which school attendance is voluntary. Students stay in school for various reasons — to learn English and attain literacy; to earn the “good time” from the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (ten days off of their sentences for every 30 days of school); to earn their pay—$0.95/day; to get out of their cells; and/or to see and socialize with friends. Needless to say, “good time” is the great motivator, but because they could also work in maintenance, sanitation, or food service for the same good-time credits and pay, many students eagerly state their desire to learn the language of the country where they currently reside and are incarcerated.
Twelve students attend the morning class — three from Mexico, two from Guatemala, three from Honduras, two from El Salvador, one from Puerto Rico, and one from Cuba. Maryland, in general, does not have a problem with Hispanic gangs in the state prisons. For the most part, the Hispanic prisoners go to school, play soccer, and do their time. In this regard, they form a cohesive unit regardless of country of origin, work well together, and look out for each other. Many Hispanic students prefer to be housed in the same building, although some are housed in other buildings, outside of the general Hispanic population. Spanish is their first language, and this factor alone marks them as part of “MCI-J’s Hispanic inmates.”
Arturo is a student in the morning ESL class, which is for preliterate and beginning English language learners. He has been in this ESL class for five years at MCI-J. Arturo was born in Cuba, went to primary school for only three years in Sagua La Grande, and came to Miami in 1980 during President Carter’s term. At that time, he was 29 years old and spoke only Spanish. He left behind in Cuba a son and a girlfriend, neither of whom he has seen since that time. He lived with an uncle in Miami who spoke English and Spanish, and worked in a Chinese restaurant. Arturo learned to speak English side by side with a Chinese immigrant, and the two of them, together in the kitchen, learned the vocabulary necessary to work in the restaurant. Arturo moved to different cities, worked various jobs, and learned only the English that he needed to learn for survival, and no more. Today, at age 59, Arturo has been incarcerated for 18 years and has been in ESL classes for five years. Although he is an attentive student — participates in class, does his homework, attends regularly — Arturo is a fossilized learner who struggles to make progress.
Arturo is able to read and write in Spanish at a very basic level; he has not been tested in his L1 as this is not customary in correctional education, but he frequently misspells words, and makes grammatical mistakes in Spanish, as well as English. His English literacy skills have remained at the 1.8 – 2.5 levels (equates to second grade level) as assessed on the written Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) used at MCI-J. His oral language skills are 458, high beginning, as assessed by the BEST-Plus test for oral proficiency. Although Arturo can learn specific language skills and apply them in isolated drills, he is not able to retain this learning on a long-term basis unless the instructor calls his attention to the rule. In addition, in spontaneous conversation in English, he speaks with hesitation and frequent pauses, and with the following characteristics:

1. He uses the object pronoun “me”, when referring to himself as a subject. Example: “Me got a letter from my old girlfriend.” This occurs in about 50 percent of his spoken English.
2. He uses “no + verb” instead of “auxiliary + not.” Example: “Me no got that money order from my son.”
3. He uses wh-questions without auxiliaries or inversion, such as “Why he like that?”
4. The past tense ending “ed” is always absent. “Me walk to the commissary this morning.”
5. Present progressive with no auxiliary is used in place of present tense. “He coming now,” and
6. There is no use of the possessive. “It Bobby book.”

Thus, Arturo’s English can be classified as having the characteristics of a fossilized language learner.
Influencing Factors
By his own account, Arturo lived primarily in Spanish communities [he uses the word Spanish and not Hispanic] in metropolitan areas (Miami, Manhattan, Union City, Allentown, and Baltimore) after arriving in the U.S. in 1980. His girlfriends and friends were either Spanish-speaking or bilingual English/Spanish. Because he had difficulty making enough money in blue collar jobs, he decided to become involved in the inner-city drug trade, and he became a major distributor in the Baltimore area. Thus, as a member of a minority group in an outlaw community, he can be described as “subordinate” to the dominant American Caucasian culture. This subordination has led to a lack of attachment emotionally, psychologically, and socially to mainstream American culture. For years, Arturo had no legitimate job and no trained job skills; he had various girlfriends with no stable home life; he lived in predominately inner-city neighborhoods with large Latino populations; and he associated mostly with minority groups (non-Caucasian). In addition, although the acculturative process included adhering to the materialistic American lifestyle, Arturo maintained a very Latino image and traveled to Miami frequently to visit Cuban friends and relatives. It is hypothesized for this case study that not only did Arturo reject the lifestyle and values of the mainstream target language group (TL), but he also rejected the mores of the community at large, and instead chose a pariah lifestyle where his fossilized English served him sufficiently in his business transactions. His need to speak and learn standard English was zero, and thus his English remained at the communicative (first) level of second language learning. His emotional and social needs were met by his second language learning group (2LL), and interaction with speakers of the TL and standard American English were few and far between. This resulted in social distance between Arturo and mainstream society, and no emotional attachment for the L2, all of which contributed to Arturo’s language fossilization. This fossilization continues today at MCI-J, where there is still high cohesiveness and preservation among the Hispanic inmates, negative attitudes between many different subgroups (both incarcerated and correctional), segregation of Hispanic students, incongruity, and subordination. All of these factors have contributed to Arturo’s social, psychological, and emotional distance and his language fossilization.
There are also certain affective factors contributing to the emotional state of the speaker that prevent him/her from learning. These affective factors include language and culture shock, motivation, and ego permeability. In this case study, Arturo stated that he learned to speak English with a Chinese immigrant at a restaurant in Miami. Although he recalled feeling no stress or nervousness at his first job, the stress factors are impossible to measure because of so many uncontrolled variables at that time, and because of Arturo’s memory constraints at this time. As for his motivation for learning English, if any, Arturo states that he learned English on various jobs, but he never wanted to take English classes because his English was “good enough” and communication between him and other citizens “seemed fine.” Arturo had been incarcerated for 13 years, working in the kitchen, when his case manager suggested that maybe it would be good for him to go to school, and Arturo agreed.
Reviewing Arturo’s case history with the fossilization theories presented earlier, the following summation exists: His first language is Spanish; he is learning ESL and there will naturally be errors made in the L2 as he speaks and transfers from one language to another (code-switching); he went to school for only three years in his first language; because of this lack of schooling in his L1, illiteracy is apparent to some degree; there were many years of emotional, psychological, and social distance between him and the L2 community and this isolation continues today; Arturo arrived in the U.S. at the age of 29 years; at that time he spoke no English; there was no corrective feedback during his English-learning years; and there was a limited amount of comprehensible language input and limited English-speaking opportunities as Arturo remained segregated in the Hispanic community. All of these factors have contributed in some way to fossilization.

Strategies for Success
Arturo will be released from MCI-J soon. Although he does not yet have a definitive home plan, he wants to live in New York with his stepdaughter, whose husband has promised him a hospitality job. In that regard, classroom activities have included learning and practicing conversations that may be appropriate for the restaurant industry. Work-related conversations and subject matter such as working together, job safety, and time and scheduling align appropriately with the Maryland Content Standards for Adult ESL (2008), the guidelines used in all adult state ESL programs in Maryland. Workplace literacy has been addressed so that he is able to successfully fill out applications and forms for jobs, a driver’s license, or social security.
Although English has been a struggle for him, nine specific learning strategies have helped these past five years. These are not meant to be all inclusive, but simply as additional resource material for ESL and literacy teachers and their fossilized learners:

1. Memorization
Arturo is able to memorize short phrases and conversations that have been written and produced for him beforehand. These memorizations include correct subject placement of the pronoun “I” and correct placement of auxiliaries. These phrases, although limited in number, may be helpful to him in his work: Hi, how are you? May I help you? Can I help you? Would you like a drink? They are short enough that they can be memorized without second thought to the grammar rules. Although memorization is an effective technique, the brain has limited storage capacity and thus memorization cannot be used for all new learning. It can be effective, though, in short conversational segments. As an aside, Arturo is a champion in classroom spelling bees because he is capable of memorizing the correct order of the letters successfully.

2. Large print bilingual textbooks
Large print books with a minimal amount of text and pictures on one page geared toward low-literacy ESL adults are essential. Fisher-Hill (Huntington Beach, CA) produces a four-level series for adult learners, English for the Spanish Speaker, and these books are appropriate for beginning literacy ESL students. There are no pictures, and the type is 16 font, which is easy to read and follow. The books come in brightly colored covers, which invite the reader inside to a world of literacy. These books are bilingual, Spanish and English, and this bilingualism also serves to strengthen the bond between learning a language and literacy. Students see that many rules of language are the same, no matter what language is being learned. Bilingual books are effective for a contrastive approach to teaching — comparing and contrasting specific grammar rules between first and second languages. This, of course, assumes some teacher knowledge in the first language of the students.

3. Simple grammar charts
Grammar charts (for those students learning academic English) produced on 8 1/2 x 11 paper and encased in plastic sleeves for longer use can provide assistance to fossilized learners because it offers them a tangible reminder of the grammar rule. These can be kept in their notebooks for easy access when formal writing is necessary. For example, when learning the present continuous tense, Arturo uses a chart that reminds him specifically to use the auxiliary word, plus the verb, plus i-n-g. The chart includes the seven pronouns with the correct auxiliary. Using colored paper will enhance the chart’s effectiveness as a student will remember the different colors of the different charts, and when to use them.

4. Working one on one
Whether working with the teacher, tutor, or another student, fossilized learners crave and need individual attention. As explained earlier, they may have had social, emotional, or linguistic distance previously and thus become estranged from learning, specifically language learning, as an ultimate goal. The first step for them is an awareness that certain changes need to be made in specific grammatical structures, and that these corrections can be made through practice and hard work. Working one on one provides the reference necessary and allows for a comfortable continuance of the ongoing language practice. When a bond develops between student and teacher, the student’s self-confidence improves as he realizes there is someone present who cares about and is concerned for his future. The goal in this case is to negate the effects of all those years of emotional and psychological isolation.

5. Colors
The use of color can be a cultural awakening — how different cultures view colors is astounding. Although in the U.S. we are used to seeing beige and white houses and dress-for-success involves basic black or gray, many other cultures celebrate the use of color, and live and dress accordingly. This can be a valuable teaching tool, and at MCI-J, ESL students are motivated by bright colors, not only with textbooks, but with work papers, use of colored pencils, markers, and even room decoration. Because the use of color has provided an element of excitement and awakening, the teacher has turned to color coding files and papers in order to increase motivation. For rooms with whiteboards, dry markers now come in about 16 different colors, all of which make writing even more fun.

6. Journals
“Special” writing journals given to students are like gifts to them. They treasure the books, in which they write English phrases and sentences that they know. These journals are not used for creative writing, rather they are used as a reference or reflection for what students have learned. Teachers must check them regularly to make sure writing is correctly written. These are best done in pencil, on a one-to-one basis, either with the student and teacher, or student and tutor. This journal writing will serve as a model as students re-read them in their own time. Journals used in this way are empowering because the student has a hard copy of his own correct language production. Many ESL students have reported that they enjoy reading their own journals, practicing out loud what they have written.

7. From problem to solution orientation
As part of language discussions in class, it is imperative to focus on identifying the problem at hand, and then thinking about solutions. For an incarcerated student like Arturo, this is especially important because there are not a lot of freedoms while incarcerated, and students become institutionalized. They are familiar with their daily routines, following directions, taking orders, and being submissive. Movement out of the ordinary causes stress and anxiety. However, acquiring new knowledge involves actively using one’s mind and thinking about the big picture. Thus, identifying problems and solutions should be part of the integral process of language learning, and orally discussing current problems can give students access to a new vocabulary, but insight into how to solve their problems within an institutional setting and outside its walls. For example, at MCI-J, many students want to change their assigned living quarters for a different building. Their first inclination is to tell “someone else” to help them — the teacher, the tutors, a student with better English skills. By identifying the problem on the blackboard — I am not happy in my cell, and focusing on a solution — I need to move to a new cell, and how to arrive at the solution — write down the language, practice the language and actions through role play, review and repeat, the student can attain independence while he is also learning his new language.

8. Specific English instruction
Many ESL students feel that their limited English restricts them in conversation with correctional officers and superiors. As a result, they do not speak when they should or could, and this isolates them even more within their group. Correctional teachers should give their students the language they need to function inside a correctional facility or any other institution. Sometimes students need specific language in order to make their voices heard. Creating lesson plans specifically for correctional education will certainly be required in many cases. This is no different than learning the language for the corner supermarket, or learning the language for the job. For example, when teaching the language of plumbing, MCI-J students are taught familiar language needed: There is a problem with the toilet. The toilet is overflowing. The sink does not work. Learning institution-specific language is essential to helping ESL students gain confidence and master the language needed for survival.

9. Visuals, visuals
We know from research (and our own experience) that the more we see an image, a letter, a word, another person, the better we get to know him/her. This is a universal truth in literacy and especiallÍy valid in language learning. The more repetitions that occur, the better the chance that new learning will occur also. In this regard, all learners do well with visual images of not just pictures, but of words, phrases, and even sentence structures. For the classroom, this means that the teacher needs to write all spoken expressions on the blackboard and be mindful of a truly integrated curriculum — listening for pronunciation, speaking and practicing, reading, writing — and then practice, practice, practice, with and without the visual image. In addition, labels can be taped around the classroom to learn new vocabulary. For example — monitor, mouse, keyboard, and hard drive.
Because he has been incarcerated for 18 years and there are other social, psychological, and linguistic factors that contribute to his speech patterns (Ebonics is one such factor; MCI-J is roughly 78 percent African-American), it is hard to judge what intrinsic or extrinsic motivation now exists for changing Arturo’s speech patterns. However, he is aware that his speech patterns are “no good,” as told to him by other students. For his future job endeavors, I appeal to the practical side of learning English and what he may gain from learning it; in other words, what is in it for him. This is one way I see to motivate fossilized learners, which is the same philosophy used for others who are incarcerated and/or jobless — job training, including appropriate vocabulary and language, in order to appeal to their money-making potential, which will help themselves, their families, and their communities.
Although fossilization prevents Arturo from exiting ESL at MCI-J and getting a GED, his life circumstances are hopeful. After his release, there is hope that he will be able to see himself as someone worthy of working in the community, having a paycheck, taking care of his family, and speaking English to his customers and others. His investment in speaking English in a natural environment may trump the silence and feelings of inadequacy at MCI-J, and his past life. In this way, he may find his true voice, and it may be in an altered state of (improved) English.

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Susanne Gardner teaches ESL at the Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup and previously taught at Anne Arundel Community College. She holds an MA in Leadership in Teaching with concentration in TESOL and a B.A. in Foreign Language Education.