Fossilized errors

What, dear Reader, do linguists mean when they use the expression fossilized errors? Here is a hint: if you or your kids have ever learned a foreign language, you yourselves are proud owners of fossilized errors! Any ideas now?

When learning that other language, you and your kids probably made quite a number of errors. Which is a completely natural part of the learning process. After all, your brain is so used to your native language that it's not so easy to use different structures instead.

For example, being used to English hundred, Americans usually say hundret for German hundert. Or if they learn French, they might say "I am 20 years" instead of using the French structure: "I have 20 years."

If learners keep making the same error over and over again, it will eventually become fixed - a fossilized error. And why do learners make the same error over and over again?

Because nobody corrects them. Also, many people learn another language only for a little while (maybe because they are forced to), so there is not enough time for their brains to get used to the correct structure.

You would think that living in the country where the language is spoken would improve your skills. But unfortunately, this is not automatically the case.

If you go to Finland but primarily speak English during your stay, your Finnish will not improve much. In order to improve, you need to actively use Finnish. And then, of course, you still need people to point out your errors.

Does this sound discouraging? Well, it depends on how ambitious you are. If you don't care about talking like a native speaker, but are just happy with being understood, you can certainly have a fulfilling language experience despite your fossilized errors.

Dr. Daniela Ribitsch originally comes from Graz, Austria. She has lived in the United States since 2009 and teaches German at Lycoming College in Williamsport. She can be reached at