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Tai Lam
USA- 2008
In recent years, ESL or EFL teaching and learning have called for the studies
of the barriers as well as social and cognitive factors that affect adult English
learners participation in language learning. One of the most critical problems is
the plateau phenomenon, namely, some learners cannot make further
development in language skills. One of the factors contributing to the phenomenon
is the fossilized errors in their speech. The plateau is referred to as the fossilization
(Selinker, 1972), which is the point where there is no further language growth or
even cessation of learning in spite of continuous exposure to input, adequate
motivation, and sufficient opportunity to practice. This fossilized phenomenon in
language learning has caused the attention of worldwide scholars and researchers.
Most of their studies focus on the definition and causal factors for fossilization and
some are trying to find solutions to the problem. Their researches have greatly
enlightened the teaching and learning of English. However, in some certain and
particular fields, some attribution areas have still not received due consideration.
Moreover, the majority of this research on fossilized learner factors to date has

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been conducted in non-tonal native language speakers. Impacts of the tonal

languages in English pronunciation, ill-structured sentences and the learners
thinking intervened structures are still in scarcity of adequate empirical research.
Based on the pavement of prior studies, this article attempts to explore the major
difficulties due to fossilization by conducting a case study on a tonal-language EFL
English speakers following a quantitative and qualitative analysis methodology.
The subject of the fossilized ESL/EFL learner conducted in this study is
from Vietnam, where official language is Vietnamese, one of the tonal languages
in Asia. As a woman at the age of 45, of junior high school education, Chenny,
slightly different from her spouse, is dynamic and self-motivated in her life, with
the hope that the life change of the whole family is

favor of her final

determination. After one year of living with her sibling on arrival of The United
States, the family moved out and the subject earns a living as a manicurist for the
whole family and supports her two high-school children, either of whom is at the
period of college entrance.
The study is conducted by obtaining information from a ten-minutes
interview and five-minutes narrative of the subject regarding topics of a new life,
new challenges that the subject encounters since. Both were tape-recorded and

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only the interview was transcribed and some speech had to be transliterated due to
particular features of the subjects native language sounds.
In order to get a better view of the subjects fossilized errors when using the
English as foreign or second language (EFL/ESL), the article tends to explore the
problems by analyzing some aspects of the subjects pronunciation, features of
grammar, conversation and social identity.
One of the major fossilized errors that the subject has is the pronunciation
primarily inflected by her native language sounds. In the course of interview and
conversation, the subjects oral communication is comprehensible in spite of her
strong Vietnamese accent. However, the subject frequently contracts some
common errors regarding English pronunciation. The problems are found to be the
natural dropping of some final nasal consonants ([m], [n]), plosive sounds ([t], [d],
[k] ), and fricatives ([f], [v], [s], [z]) (27 occurrences), some of which never exist
in Vietnamese sound inventory. As one of the syllable-timed languages which each
syllable is short and simple in construction, Vietnamese has the structure of each
syllable as C V C (consonant-vowel-consonant) and its structure is characterized
by this table: (Taiwan Buffalo International, 2001) (Figure 1)
Final (rhyme)

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Onset Nucleus


Figure 1
A more specific presentation of Vietnamese syllable structure can be based
on Ngos (2005) study. The tone of each Vietnamese syllable covers the whole
syllable and only the nuclear vowel is compulsory : (Figure 2)



consonant or

Figure 2
Numbers of codas available in Vietnamese are limited to a certain degree,
specially, there are only six consonants ( [c], [h], [m], [n], [p], [t]) and two semivowels ([i], [u]) which can stand in word final position.
Besides, the subjects also has difficulties in pronouncing some fricative
consonant sounds such as [], [], and [], affricatives [t], some plosives [p] and
[g] (15 occurrences) due to the sound absence in Vietnamese. The subject
pronounces [d] for [] (14), [t] for [] (2 occurrences),

[d]/ for [t] (3

occurrences), and [b] for [p] (4). The problems when the subject pronounces some
initial consonant clusters such as [sp-], [dr-], [br-], [fr-], [pl-], and [str-] are found
in the conversation (13 occurrences). The subject also makes some errors in
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pronouncing vowels [ei] for [i:]; [ou] for [u], and [n] for [l] (24 occurrences),
especially in pronouncing the vowels with dark [l] (velarized alveolar lateral
approximant) like culture, little (10). The major causal problems of the
subjects pronunciation can be explained by the following grounds:
a) Sounds in English that are not part of or different from the sound
inventory of the subjects native language.
b) The different rules of combining sounds into words in the subjects native
language from those in English.
c) Limitation of final sounds pronounced in the subjects native language.
Analyzing the subjects grammar feature, errors are found in her speech in
several categories as illustrated below:
Disorders of noun modifiers. (1)
Common use of zero copula in sentences consisting of subject and
adjectival predicate (e.g. She nice). (6)
Overuse of contracted copula ( e.g. Im want). (4)
Misuses or Zero article / preposition in conversation. (e.g. different to
culture; a lot customer) (7)
Problems with subject-verb agreement in Present tense. (e.g. She teach) (9)
No aux-verbs used in Present perfect aspect ( e.g. I been here) (3)

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Few past verbs used in past aspect. (11)

Little or wrong use of gerunds/ full infinitives. (5)
Misuses of adjectives and adverbs. (6)
The study also finds out the errors made by the subject by tracing back the
subjects source language grammar. The subject misplaces the noun modifiers in
some sentences might fall into the fact that in Vietnamese, most nominal modifiers
are post-nominal: attributive adjectives, relative clauses and possessor nounphrases, for example, all appear to the right of the head noun. This is as one would
expect of a strongly head-initial language. However, a restricted set of closed class,
functional, items appear pre-nominally, to the left of the head noun. This set of
items includes pluralizers, various types of quantificational elements, classifiers,
and numerals, e.g. as the subject says, My husband is a man very serious
(Chng ti l ngi n ng rt nghim tc), this appears to be Vietnamese
grammar in which the attributive adjective serious is post-nominal. The
Vietnamese language has no notion of articles. To demonstrate something, only
focus markers (Nguyen, 2004) are used. The optional particle ci is identified
as a focus marker, also called by several other names, including general classifier,
general categorical, ''extra" ci, "extra" general classifier, definite article,
superarticle, definite word, demonstrative word, and ch xut "indexical". Focus
ci occurs directly before classifiers or unit nouns and may be preceded by other

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pre-noun modifiers such as quantifiers, numerals, and articles. It must always cooccur with a classifier. For instance, Quyn sch, mt quyn sch : A book; (ci)
quyn sch ny or kia : The book or This / that very book, etc.
Likewise, theres no copula used in the subject-adjective predicate sentences
in the subjects native language. In addition, theres no concepts of conjugated
verbs or verb aspects in Vietnamese. Vietnamese, like many languages in
Southeast Asia and Chinese, is an analytic (or isolating) language. As such its
grammar highly relies on word order and sentence structure rather than
morphology (in which word changes through inflection). Whereas English as well
as other European languages tend to use morphology to express tenses or aspects,
Vietnamese uses grammatical particles or syntactic constructions to express the
relative aspects. Although it is not required or so-called conjugated, past tense is
indicated by adding the particle , present progressive tense by the particle
ang, and future tense is indicated by the particle s . e.g. Ti hc (I learned
or I have learned), Ti ang hc (I am learning) Ti s hc (I will learne or I am
going to learn), while hc remains the same form in all aspects.
The flow of sound produced by the physical linking of one word to the next
within the phrases within the subjects speech is usually discontinuous. Strong
contrast is often made in conversation between heavy and weak stresses. The

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subject has a very strong Vietnamese accent, and produces most of the speech in
flat intonation. In order to express a particular idea, the subject occasionally uses
some Vietnamese semantic features as seen in Lines 2 (just done work), 3 (do
nails), 12, 14, 16, 19 in the interview speech.
The subject has tried to establish contact with the interviewer and fill in time
while trying in improve wording or preparing a context for segments of the
utterance containing a properly organised messages served through fillers,
expletives, hesitations and even longer formulae like um, I mean, I think, you
know .
From the narrative and conversation with the subject, the subjects identity is
obviously established. The subject commits herself that she lives between the
cultures. The subject tells about the experience of immigrants struggling for her
new life and new culture, though not obviously indicating, the subject even has to
struggle for the right to get equal treatment from others in social life and activities.
She sometimes is feeling inferior because of unequal hidden treatment because of
her language limitation and barriers. Another perhaps, she finds unable to negotiate
her social identity because she could not build good communication with the native
speakers who seemed to create the gap intentionally. For the subjects thinking,
it is the linguistic environment that represents inequitable relations of power

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with native speakers who are more likely to avoid than negotiate meaning with
them" (Norton, 2000). This creates her social identity as ethnic-minority-group
person who is isolated and has less power in the community. None of the
differences can be modified to enable her to integrate with the native speakers,
except for the language. The subjects case responds Nortons theory (2000) of
social identity. In Nortons study, she sees social identity as the multiple ways in
which people understand themselves in relation to others, and how they see their
past and their future. She views the relationship between social context and second
language learning as: learners and their learning are socially constructed, so too are
learners social identities; language plays a central role in this process.
The second component is tightly related to the subjects social identity is
power relations which emerge in the interaction between language learners and
native speakers. It includes the right to speak, the right to be equal with other
members of society. According to the Hobbesian approach, power is intrinsic to
social life. It is through language that a person negotiates a sense of self within and
across different sites at different point in time, and it is through language that a
person gains access to powerful social networks that give learners the opportunity
to speak (Norton-Peirce, 1995). Both the proposed social identity and power
relations are located within this target language community. This is where the

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language using process takes place, and the domain where the language users have
to fit in.
In the narrative, the subject mentions about the age" , the impact of which
on language acquisition and specifically pronunciation is varied. Many researches
show that, after puberty, lateralization (the assigning of linguistic functions to the
different brain hemispheres) is completed, and adults' ability to distinguish and
produce native-like sounds is more limited. Others like Lenneberg (1967) Penfield
and Robert (1959) refer to the existence of sensitive periods when various aspects
of language acquisition occur, or to adults' need to re-adjust existing neural
networks to accommodate new sounds. Most researchers, however, agree that
adults find pronunciation more difficult than children do and that they probably
will not achieve native-like pronunciation. Yet experiences with language learning
and the ability to self-monitor, which come with age, can offset these limitations to
some degree.
Nonlinguistic factors related to the subjects personality and learning goals
such as Her positive attitude towards the target language and culture, can influence
achievement in pronunciation. However, degree of acculturation (including
exposure to and use of the target language) also plays a great role to support or
impede pronunciation skills development. As in the subjects narrative, it shows
that the subjects family is living in City of Westminster. That is an area where a

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large number of Vietnamese, constituting approximately 30.7% of the population

(according to 2000 census). This incidentally creates a less English-friendly
environment to the subject for language development.
Fossilization errors follow patterns that are based on the language and the
culture of their origin. Speakers of tonal languages, such as Chinese or Vietnamese
will have particularly distinct fossilization errors. As theorized in Anderson's
(1983, 1995) associative stage of skill acquisition, errors or obstacles become an
important index of the learning process. However, learning obstacles have not been
widely researched in the field of language learning strategies. This study explores
the difficulties or barriers confronted by a Vietnamese EFL learner while acquiring
a living language after immigration. It indicates that the obstacles confronted by
the learners are multifaceted. Each facet carries a probable risk of comprehension
failure. Learning barriers are associated with the internal factors of learners, among
which the learners first language influences the pronunciation of the target
language and is a significant factor in accounting for foreign accents. The so-called
negative transfer from the first language is likely to cause errors in intonation, and
rhythm in the target language.
The pronunciation of any one learner might be affected by a combination of
many factors. The key is to be aware of their existence so that they may be

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considered in creating realistic and effective pronunciation goals and development

plans for the learners. For older learners, native-like pronunciation is not likely to
be a realistic goal; a tonal-language native-speaking learner, such as Vietnamese
and Chinese, will need assistance with different pronunciation features than will a
native French speaker; and a young engineer who knows he will be more respected
and possibly promoted if his pronunciation improves is likely to be responsive to
direct pronunciation instruction.


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1. Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D., & Goodwin, J. (1996). "Teaching

pronunciation: Reference for teachers of English to speakers of other
2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3. Duffield. Nigels project. Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) .
4. Ellis, R. (1986). Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford
University Press.
5. Ellis, Rod. (1997). Second Language Acquisition. Oxford University Press.
6. Ellis, Rod. (2006). Analysing Learner Language . Oxford University Press.
7. Florez, MaryAnn Cunningham. Improving Adult ESL Learners'
Pronunciation Skills. National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education
Washington DC., Adjunct ERIC Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education
Washington DC.
8. Ioup, G. Boustagui, E., El Tigi, M. & Moselle, M. (1994). Reexamining the
critical period Hypothesis: A case study of successful adult SLA in a
naturalistic environment. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 18: 73-98.
Rowley, Mass: Newbury House.
9. Krashen, S. (1987). Applications of psycholinguistic research to the
classroom. In M. Long & J. Richards (Ed.), Methodology in TESOL: A book
of readings.Rowley, Mass: Newbury House.
10. Norton, B. (1995). Social identity, investment, and language learning.
TESOL Quarterly, 29 (1), 9-31.
11. Norton, B. (1997). Language, Identity, and the Ownership of English.
TESOL Quarterly, 31, 409-429, 1997.
12. Norton, B. & Toohey, K. (2002). Identity and Languge Learning. In R.B.
Kaplan (ed), The Oxford Handbook of Applied Linguistics,115-123. New
York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
13. Schumann, J. (1978). The acculturation model for second-language
acquisition. In R. C. Gingras (ed). Second Language Acquisition and
Foreign Language Teaching. Arlington, VA: Center for Applied
Linguistics, 27-50.
14. Thornbury, Scott. Fossilized Errors. Mac Milland. One Stop English

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15. Wong Fillmore, L. (1992). Learning a language from learners. In C.

Kramsch & S. McConnell-Ginet (eds.), Text and context: Crossdisciplinary perspectives on language study. Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath.

Interviewee's Responses (Transcription):
1. em gutum (.) but heo been busy these days, em feel a lit-tn tai.
2. I det dn wk tu-dei (.) More busy than last week.
3. Um(.) em du neo an mni-k :t biu-ti sa-ln.
4. Ye, ye, manicure. Ye.
5. em wking in Downey, not far home.

6. English. I speak English. Some-tai dei dont understand mei an I dont

understand dem. () No, no, I lai speak, but I heo forget a lot English.
7. I (.) been hi for four year.
8. Ye. I heo tu ra:d hi. Dei really nai tu mei.

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9. I heo one girl an one boy. My girl 15 year old. My boy 10 year old. My
husban is a man (..) very serious. My son study very good. Hei heo a
lot award um My girl hep mei du wk :t home every day.
10. I liu in lit-tn Saigon near hi. I liu wd my ra:dumI
family liu wd my rad. Hei sponsors my family come hi.
11. Yeah. I heo go to ABC dn School wen I came hi. I study English
over d in Vietnam. UmD tit-d i nai tu bi-ble lai mei. Sei tit mei a
lot..ummtit mei rid an rai.
12. UmmyeahyeahI heo tu friends Korean an one friend
Chinese. Dei are d sm age lai mei. Wei hep togetherummumI

hep dem an dei hep mei.

13. I lai speaking classummit fun. My tit-d tits mei tu say d w:

k-rt. Many bi-ble from different kn-try heo different t-snt.

14. No. I stop now. I go wk. I lai English tu, but I dont heo many tai .
Now I study English in my kids.
15. Ye. Not often. Dei are learn English before dei came hi I
mean dei study English in my kn-try.

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16. My husban takes to schoolI dont know to driveum.. umm I

scare (laugher).
17. Please repeat. Em cannot catch you.
18. Yeah. em lai dit job. I heo da:nce to meet a lot customer
mmAmerican, Mexican, an Asian. Some-tai dei tit mei English tu.
19. Oh America gut. Kn-ch hi different to kn-ch in my kn-try. One

tai, When I first came..umwe heo tu stand in line wen we buy things
in market. But I dont, no .. um I dont stand in line, but I did go direct

tu d ka-shi. an many beo-ble look tu mei. (laughter). I know now it's

bad. (laughter).
20. Umm dit one i not about kn-ch ummlaione lady say tu mei
I like your shirt, an I dont know clear about da:t. so I dont say thank
you to her. I det smile. (laughter)

Ummmnot a lotum..I mean It sup-prises mei, but it is not

shock me...umm.. because I think each kn-try heo own kn-ch.


Em want to open biuti sa-lon for mei. So I can wk (.) easy..

umm.. I meancom-f: table. I try.

Interviewee's Responses (Rewritten):
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1. Im goodumbut have been busy these days, Im feel a little tired.


2. Ive just done work today. More busy than last week.
3. Um(.) Im do nails and manicare (?) at beauty salon.
4. Yes, yes, manicure. Yes.
5. Im working in Downey, not far (.) my home.
6. English. I speak English. Sometimes they dont understand me and I
dont understand them () No, no, I like speak. But I have forget a lot

7. I (.) been here for four year.

8. Ye. I have two brothers here. They really nice to me.
9. I have one girl and one boy. My girl 15 year old. My boy 10 year old.
My husband is a man (..) very serious. My son study very good. He
have a lot award umMy girl help me do work at home. every day.

10. I live in Little Saigon near here, I live with my brotherumI family live with my brother. He sponsors my family come

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11. Yeah. I have go to ABC Adult School when I came here. I study
English over there in Vietnam. UmThe teacher is nice to people like
me. She teach me a lot .. ummteach me read and write.

12. UmmyeahyeahI have two friends Korean an one friend











togetherummumI help them and they help me.

13. I like speaking classummit fun. My teacher teach me to say the

word correct Many people from different country have different accent.

14. No. I stop now. I go work. I like English, too. But I dont have many
time . Now I study English in my kids.

15. Yeah. Not often. They are learn English before they came here I mean they study English in my country.

16. My husband takes to schoolI dont know to driveum.. umm I

scare (laugher).

17. Please repeat. Im cannot catch you.

18. Yeah. Im like this job. I have chance to meet a lot customer um
mmAmerican, Mexican, and Asian. Sometimes they teach me
English, too.
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19. Oh America good. Culture here different to culture in my country. One

time, When I first came.. umwe have to stand in line when we buy
things in market. But I dont no .. um I dont stand in line, but I go
direct to the cashier, and many people look to me. (laughter). I know
now it's bad. (laughter).

20. Umm this one is not about culture ummlikeone lady say to
me I like your shirt, an I dont know clear about that. so I dont say
thank you to her. I just smile. (laughter).

21. Um mmnot a lotum ..I mean It surprises me, but it is not shock
me...umm.. because I think each country have own culture.

22. Im want to open beauty salon for me. So I can work (.) easy.. umm.. I
meancomfortable. I try.

Interviewer's prompts:
1. Hi, Chi, How are you doing? Getting along well these days?
2. Why are you tired?
3. What do you do?
4. Manicure or facial?
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5. Where are you working?

6. What language do you speak to the customers? . Do you speak
a lot?
7. How long have you been in United States?
8. Do you have any relatives here in US?
9. Tell me about your family.

Where are you living? who are you living with?


Did you study English after you came to US?


Did you make any friends at Adult School?


Which classes do you like best at Adult School?


Do you still continue studying English now?


Do your children speak English to you?


Who takes them to school every day?


Hows your work going?


I mean, is your work getting on well? Do you like your present


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What else do you see the differences between the two


Does American culture surprise you? What do you think about


What do you want to do in the future? Do you have any plan?




Introduce yourself.
1. I am Vietnamese. (.) My name is xxx, you can call me (.) Chenny in
English, uum.. American name is Cheney.. I was born and er er grew
up in Vietnam. That is a .. a country in Asia, I mean, in South East
Asia. Before I... mm arrived in this America here, I had my own

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business. (..) My education background is low, dont laugh me. .. I just

finished junior high school. But my husband is better than me, he
graduated university. In Vietnam, we do our business. Business
iswas good there. Our life is okay.
Tell about why your family decided to come to USA.
2. You ask me why? (laughter) For children, of course, for children. We
moved here, I mean America with the my brother sponsor. All my
family came together. Um American education is the best on the
world. I think so. Coming here to US is a great change to our life, you
know. My husband dont like to change. Its dangerous, he says. ..
The life is um.. smooth here, um, stable, right? Coming here is good
for children receive higher education.
How do you think about American life as well as new culture? Do you
have any problems here regarding those?
3. American life? Very different to my country. Of course, everything
new, everything starts from beginning. Many difficulties and problems
you will have. Some customs are good, some are not suitable with
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our culture. I mean um.. American culture is a mixture. It has many

cultures from every countries in the world, you know. What is
American culture? No one knows. Agree? We accept what is like and,
I mean, good. Bad things? Of course, let it go, all right?
4. People are friendly, thats good. We learn it, we teach our kids do it.
But but sometimes, I mean, they are friendly only when we work , I
mean, when we.. are with them doing something. After that, they
dont know you. Its not real. Agree? Do you think like me?
I have question, Chenny, do you want to have American citizenship in
the future?
5. Thats a question. If I have a chance, I like to get citizenship. But I still
want to keep my citizenship. . You ask me why? (laughter) I dont
want to lose, I think, you know. But my children will get American
citizenship, because they will live here long. My husband dont want
to stay here very long now. You know, but I think, he will change
Tell me the difficulties you have with English here
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6. They speak, I mean, Americans speak very fast. Sometimes, I think

that is the way they speak. You know, I dont understand nothing, not
understand a word. I feel sad when they speak like that. I think
myself, you know, they dont want you understand. They dont like to
talk to a person like me, very bad English. Um.. I try to tell them
something I want, its difficult. They speak English well, of course,
they are not.. I mean, not want to wait very long for you.. no I mean,
they are not patient, maybe time is important to them, right? is it
correct?.. so I usually buy things at Vietnamese shop and
supermarket. Its easy. My friend tell me learn English from VOA, do
you know VOA? Special English, they speak slowly. I am forty-five
year old now. Not easy to learn, easy to forget. My pronunciation is
bad, very hard to change. (.) I need time OK.

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