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192

ZhaoHong Han and Wai Man Lew

ZhaoHong Han and Wai Man Lew

Acquisitional complexity
What defies complete acquisition in
Second Language Acquisition*

1.

Introduction

Like many key constructs in applied linguistics research, complexity is pluralistic, and as such, can denote different things for different people. This
cannot have been demonstrated more clearly anywhere than in the Freiburg
Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) workshop, and its culminating product – this volume. Eye-opening as it was, the workshop raised more questions than answers in the minds of many participants: What in the world is
complexity? How should it be defined? Is it possible to develop a universal definition of complexity? In this chapter, we present our perspective on
complexity, dubbed “acquisitional complexity”, differentiating it from its
close confound, “developmental complexity”, and in so doing, elucidate
complexity as a non-unitary construct, even in the domain of second language acquisition (SLA).
Before we begin, a brief statement about what complexity means to us is in
order. To us, the term complexity connotes an intricate relationship, relative rather
than absolute, between linguistic elements, with both a clinal and a temporal dimension.
Applying these criteria to, say, sentences (1) through (6) below, it is straightforwardly obvious which ones are complex and which ones are not as much:
(1) I like the movie we saw about Moby Dick, the white whale.
(2) The captain said if you can kill the white whale, Moby Dick, I will give this gold to the
one that can do it.
(3) And it is worth sixteen dollars.
(4) They tried and tried.
(5) But while they were trying they killed a whale and used the oil for the lamps.
(6) They almost caught the white whale. (Hunt 1970)
* We gratefully acknowledge the constructive comments and suggestions made by
the editors and reviewers on an earlier version of this chapter. Any shortcomings
that remain are exclusively our responsibility.

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Whereas all of these sentences are each a ‘minimal terminable unit’ (or
‘T-unit’1), some are more complex than others (hence ‘relative’). For
example, sentence (1) is more complex than (3) but less complex than (2),
and so forth (hence ‘clinal’). In this case, complexity is embodied in the interrelationship of finite verbs: Sentence (3) has a sole independent clause
with one finite verb (i.e., is), and hence is the least complex. Sentence (1), on
the other hand, is more complex in that it contains one independent clause
and one dependent clause or two finite verbs (i.e., like, saw). The most complex is, clearly, sentence (2) because it has one independent clause and three
dependent clauses or four finite verbs (i.e., said, can kill, will give, can do). Importantly, such complexity in syntax is not a random occurrence; rather, it
reflects a complexity in thought. Therefore, sentence (2) contains the most
thoughts and (3) the fewest.
Complexity arguably takes on a temporal dimension as well as a structural
one, to the extent that greater complexity evolves from lesser complexity.
Hunt (1970) has reported that children appear to undergo a sequence in their
syntactic development, marked by three stages: First, they produce independent clauses; second, they join independent clauses through subordination;
third, they increase the amount of subordination.
From the examples above, it would also appear that complexity can be
associated with quantity. Indeed, some participants at the FRIAS workshop
have pointed to ‘more’ as its defining characteristic. However, we concur
with Hunt’s (1970) observation that the quantity attribute may not be consistently reliable, since development may sometimes be linked to “less”.
Consider examples (7) and (8):
(7) Moby Dick was a dangerous whale. People had never been able to catch him. He was
a rare whale with a crooked jaw. He was a killer, too.
(8) Moby Dick was a dangerous whale that people had never been able to catch. He was a
killer, too, long and strong. (Hunt 1970: 196)
In terms of sentence length, example (7) contains more words than example
(8) – 29 words versus 23. Nevertheless, (8) is arguably more complex than (7)
inasmuch as it features subordination and, additionally, reduction (i.e., long
and strong in lieu of who was long and strong).
According to Hunt (1970), syntactic development beyond the three-stage
sequence noted above features reduction and consolidation of subordinate
1

A “T-unit”, according to Hunt (1970), is the shortest unit into which a piece of
discourse can be cut without leaving any sentence fragments as residue.

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ZhaoHong Han and Wai Man Lew

clauses into words and phrases (cf. Norris and Ortega 2009; Pallotti 2009),
resulting in fewer but longer T-units, and, functionally, in succinctness. Consequently, the subordination index becomes less reliable as a measure of syntactic development as proficiency advances.
In sum, complexity for us is as much a linguistic as a psycholinguistic construct (cf. DeKeyser 1998; Doughty and Williams 1998; Han 2004).2 Linguistically, it is something that can be evaluated against a set of externally
imposed criteria, as illustrated by the examples above. But the validity of
complexity resides in whether or not it correlates with a psychological reality.
Hence, returning to the above examples, while syntactic complexity can be
judged through examining the degree of subordination, its validity is corroborated by the reality that children’s syntactic development follows a progression path from less to more subordination, as they cognitively mature.
The psycholinguistic nature of complexity is probably best exemplified in
the linguistic domain of the lexicon, where words within the most frequent
2,000 families (West 1953), established exclusively on the basis of usage frequency, are deemed less complex than words lying beyond that scope (Cobb
1999, 2009). Here frequency forges an inverse correlation with complexity.
Psycholinguistic complexity may also manifest in the intricacies or difficulty
involved in processing, acquisition, or verbalization (Housen, Pierrard, and
Van Daele 2005).
Taking into account, then, the multi-dimensionality of complexity, it can
be posited that there be different types of complexity, depending on what
vantage point is assumed, the manifestations of which can be at variance. In
the sections that follow, we will distinguish and discuss two types of complexity – developmental and acquisitional – and elaborate on the latter.

2.

Developmental complexity

Much of the second language (L2) research on complexity to date has primarily been directed at what we term developmental complexity (see the 2009
Special Issue of Applied Linguistics), that is, “the capacity to use more advanced language” (Ellis 2009: 475). The focus of this line of research has
mostly been on “syntactic complexity” (and, to a lesser extent, “lexical complexity” ), defined as “the range of forms that surface in language production
and the degree of sophistication of such forms” (Ortega 2003: 492). Three
sets of developmental measures are commonly employed to tap syntactic
2

Housen and Kuiken (2009) use a slightly different set of terms, cognitive complexity versus linguistic complexity, to characterize the different perspectives.

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complexity, often in the writing samples of L2 learners and in relation to
their global proficiency (Housen and Kuiken 2009; Larsen-Freeman 1976;
Ortega 2003; Wolf-Quintero et al. 1998): (a) the length of production (e.g.,
the mean number of words per sentence, per T-unit, and/or per clause), (b)
the amount of coordination (e.g., the number of T-units per sentence), and
(c) the amount of subordination (e.g., the number of clauses per T-unit and
the number of dependent clauses per sentence). Among these measures, (a),
especially mean length of T-unit (MLTU), is the most popular – the tacit assumption being that the longer the MLTU is, the more complex and developed the syntax is. However, as Ortega (2003: 494) has pointed out, “‘more
complex’ may mean ‘more developed’ in many different ways” and “‘more
complex’ does not necessarily mean ‘better’”. Development, for Ortega,
should also be seen in learners’ ability to use the syntactic knowledge in communicatively appropriate ways (cf. Pallotti 2009). She further cautions that
“syntactic complexity measures would be misapplied if they were to be used
as absolute developmental indices or as direct indices of language ability”
(2003: 494).
While some researchers have thus looked “outwardly”, so to speak, at
developmental complexity solely by examining the linguistic features of
learners’ output (hereafter referred to as the “linguistic approach”), others
have pointed “inwardly” to learners’ psychological state as a driving force of
complexity (hereafter referred to as the “psychological approach”). Ellis and
Barkhuizen (2005:139; see also Ellis 2009), for instance, have posited two
senses of complexity, relating both to learners’ willingness: the first is their
“willingness to use more challenging and difficult language”, which allegedly
results in controlled rather than automatic processing of the language produced; the second is their willingness to “take risks by experimenting linguistically”. On this view, then, developmental complexity is a function of the
learner’s psychological control rather than a correlate of her actual proficiency – an assumption of the linguistic approach.
The need to factor in learners’ contribution to developmental complexity
has recently been highlighted by Housen and Kuizen (2009: 463), who state
that
the cognitive complexity of an L2 feature is a variable property which is determined both by subjective, learner-dependent factors (e.g., aptitude, memory span,
motivation, L1 background) as well as by more objective factors, such as its input
saliency or its inherent linguistic complexity.

Plausible as each of these accounts (i.e., the linguistic, the psychological, and
the cognitive) may be, none of them can lead to an adequate measure of development. Rather than being mutually exclusive, they are mutually comple-

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ZhaoHong Han and Wai Man Lew

mentary. Whereas the psychological and cognitive approaches may identify
possible factors influencing developmental complexity, the linguistic approach may provide an objective view on it. Most likely, developmental complexity is a combined product of psychological, cognitive, and linguistic constraints. In the next section, we will posit another type of complexity, dubbed
“acquisitional complexity”, which we claim differs markedly from developmental complexity.

3.

Acquisitional complexity

Acquisitional complexity is defined by what is ultimately non-acquirable.
There are six aspects of it that can be highlighted as being distinct from developmental complexity.
1. First of all, acquisitional complexity is mostly idiosyncratic; what is acquisitionally complex (or otherwise) for one learner (or for one group of
learners) may not be so for another. As such, acquisitional complexity
does not measure up with external, universal yardsticks such as those used
for evaluating developmental complexity (e.g., length of T-unit).
2. Acquisitional complexity is static, whereas developmental complexity is
dynamic. The former addresses non-targetlike features of long-term stabilization in a putative endstate grammar, but the latter relates to transitional features in a developing grammar.3
3. The basic unit of acquisitional complexity is not a formal element, as has
featured in studies to date of developmental complexity, but rather a unity
of form, meaning, and/or function (Larsen-Freeman 2001). In other
words, acquisitional complexity concerns the extent to which form,
meaning and function are integrated rather than the manner in which
form or structure alone is manipulated (see, e.g., Pienemann 2005). Here
‘form’ is taken as being identical to how it has generally been defined, referring therefore to surface morphological and syntactic elements (see,
e.g., VanPatten 1996); ‘meaning’ refers to the learner’s default interpretation and expression of lexical, morphological, and syntactic semantics;
and ‘function’ refers to the learner’s contextualized deployment of form
and meaning in real-life discourse (otherwise termed ‘distributional properties of form-meaning mappings’).
4. Acquisitional complexity is a function of stabilized interaction of exogenous and endogenous contingencies. As such, an adequate study of it can
3

Cook’s (1999) distinction between ‘learner’ and ‘user’ might be heuristically helpful for differentiating an endstate grammar from a developing grammar.

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occur only if it is linked up with the factors involved, such as the relationship between the first language (L1) and the target language. Similarly,
prognoses can be made about acquisitional complexity only by referring
to the configurations of the putatively contributing factors.
5. Evidence of developmental complexity can, in principle, be gathered
from learners at any stage of development, but the point of departure
for locating incidence of acquisitional complexity can only be sampling
learners who have been learning in exogenously and endogenously favorable conditions, such as extended and sustained experience with the target language. Evidence of any lingering difficulty, shown as persistent deviance from the intended target in these individuals’ L2 use, may then be
used to make inferences about acquisitional complexity.
6. Lastly, whereas developmental complexity can (but need not) be
measured at one point in time, acquisitional complexity must be measured
over time. That is, longitudinal tracking is a necessity, not an option.
In sum, whereas developmental complexity is a reflection of what is acquirable at a given point in time, acquisitional complexity is a reflection of what is
ultimately non-acquirable. This will be illustrated with documented evidence
of fossilized constructions in a later section. Moreover, whereas developmental complexity can be, and has been, measured in terms of quantity, acquisitional complexity needs to be judged by its temporality (i.e., the relative
time it takes to acquire a given target language feature) and durability (i.e.,
persistence of deviance into endstate grammars). As such, their manifestations can be at odds; what is developmentally complex may not be acquisitionally complex and vice versa.

3.1. Acquisitional complexity and learning difficulty
The need for distinguishing developmental and acquisitional complexity is
progressively felt by researchers grappling with the notion of complexity in
L2 acquisition. Miestamo (2008), for instance, asserts that complexity can be
defined in terms of the cost and difficulty to L2 learners, or how hard a linguistic element is to process (i.e., to encode or decode) or acquire. Similarly,
Collins et al. (2009) maintain that complexity can be determined on the basis
of whether a structure is acquired “early” or “late”. But what is early or late
acquired may itself be non-unitary.
Almost two decades ago, Krashen (1982) insightfully noted two sets of inverse relations between form (or structure) and function: Forms that look
simple may be functionally complex; conversely, forms that look complex

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may be functionally simple. The acquisitional corollary of this is that forms
that are easy to learn may be hard to acquire, while forms that are difficult to
learn may be easy to acquire. All this amounts to suggesting that acquisitional
complexity may derive from different loci. Similarly, in discussing learning
difficulty, Ellis (1990, 2003) differentiates formal and functional complexity,
though the relationship between the two is left ambiguous – as is the question of how it differentially translates into different degrees of learning difficulty.
Learning difficulty, which has increasingly dominated the L2 literature (see,
e.g., DeKeyser 2005; Doughty and Williams 1998; Ellis 2009), has by
far been the closest surrogate for acquisitional complexity. The oft-cited
sources of learning difficulty are: (a) the frequency in which the feature occurs
in the input; (b) saliency – the extent to which the feature is easily noticeable in
the input; (c) functional value – whether the feature maps onto a clear, distinct
meaning; (d) regularity – whether the feature conforms to a specific identifiable pattern; and/or (e) processability of the feature (Ellis 2006, 2009). Construed as such, learning difficulty is, however, more akin to developmental
complexity than to acquisitional complexity. Like developmental complexity,
learning difficulty can be a developmental artifact (cf. Housen and Kuiken
2009). In other words, what is difficult at one point may not be so at another
in the developmental process, because any of the above noted sources can
rise or wane with the advent of proficiency. Notice also that the putative
sources are well-nigh exclusively tied to characteristics of the target language
(especially its formal and functional complexity), thus, by and large, placing
the onus of learning difficulty on learner-external factors (see, e.g., DeKeyser
2005; Ellis 2003, 2008; O’Grady et al. 2003; Pienemann 2005; Rimmer 2006).
Acquisitional complexity, on the other hand, is a consequence of the interplay of external and internal forces reaching a long-term equilibrium.
So far, L2 researchers have not gotten a sufficient handle on formal
and/or functional complexity, let alone how these notions interact with
learning difficulty (Scheffler 2009: 7). Maybe they never will, because “it is
hard to decide what makes a rule formally and functionally complex”. In
light of this fact, we argue that instead of continuing to belabor formal and
functional complexity in relation to learning difficulty, researchers should
funnel their efforts into exploring other avenues. One such avenue, which we
contend is particularly promising, involves tying to acquisitional complexity
findings from L2 research on fossilization, the study of features that seem
to defy complete acquisition. In the sections that follow, we will pursue this
connection, in relation to two questions: What is acquisitionally complex, or
not? What makes up acquisitional complexity?

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3.2. Fossilization and acquisitional complexity
Fossilization (Selinker 1972) is a key second language acquisition concept referring to the phenomenon of local cessation of development in spite of optimal learning conditions such as abundant exposure to input, high motivation, and plentiful opportunity for communicative practice (Han 2004). In
linking fossilization with acquisitional complexity, we begin with a few premises. First, following Long and Crookes (1992; cf. Long 1996), linguistic units
are not acquisition units (i.e., units that are actually processed and acquired).
Second, following Robinson (1996), acquisitional complexity is not the same
as difficulty: acquisitional complexity is external and difficulty is internal. In
other words, what is universally established as acquisitionally complex may
not be difficult for individual learners. However, acquisitional complexity
can be inferred from common acquisitional difficulty. Third, fossilizable
structures are complex. Fourth, only longitudinal research can prove what is
acquisitionally complex.
To be sure, we define acquisitional complexity as the extent to which the
acquisition of a linguistic element is characterized by an intricate set of connections at the levels of form, meaning, and/or function, concerning two or
more languages. Drawing on insights from Larsen-Freeman (2001), we conceptualize acquisition as encompassing not just form but also form-meaning (cf. VanPatten 1996; VanPatten et al. 2004) and form-meaning-function
relations (see Figure 1). It is subsequently conceivable to us that, developmentally, acquisition proceeds from form, to form-meaning, and to formmeaning-function mapping (cf. VanPatten et al. 2004), and, consequently,
that acquisition of form is least complex, and acquisition of form-meaningfunction most complex, as the latter requires coordination of different types
of knowledge.4 This view would seem in tune with the understanding derived
from L2 research on endstate grammars. Sorace (2005: 69; emphasis in original), for example, has pointed out that “aspects of grammar that require not
only syntactic knowledge (narrow syntax), but the ability to coordinate syntactic knowledge with knowledge from other domains is late acquired – in
fact, possibly never completely acquired by L2 learners”. Acquisitional complexity, as shown in Kilborn (1992), can surface in comprehension as well as
production.
4

This view does not conflict with the notion that L2 acquisition is functionally
driven (e.g., Bardovi-Harlig 1994), just as L1 acquisition is (e.g., Slobin 1973); what
it does suggest is that while functionally driven, acquisition may still proceed with
the learner grappling first with the form, then with the form-mean mapping, and,
finally, with the form-meaning-function mapping.

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Further, we conjecture that acquisitional complexity at each of these
levels – form, form-meaning, and form-meaning-function – is determined
not by the target language complexity (i.e., formal and/or functional) but
by an active cognitive interaction (though not necessarily conscious all the
time) between the target language and the L1 and/or L2, L3 (third language), and so on (i.e., learners’ prior and current interlanguages). As Lado
(1957: 2) has observed, “individuals tend to transfer the forms and meanings, and the distribution of forms and meanings of their native language
and culture to the foreign language and culture” (for recent discussions
of transfer, see Jarvis and Pavlenko 2008; Odlin 2003). Our perspective
on acquisition dictates that the primary data source for acquisitional complexity must be language in real use or learners’ real-life spontaneous production, not language-like performance as seen, for example, in testing
conditions.

Figure 1. Units of acquisition and fossilization and developmental trajectory

L2 research to date has isolated, but has also lingered on a fragmentary
understanding of, a number of phenomena which are proven challenges for
SLA theory construction. These include fossilization (Selinker 1972), variable outcomes (Bley-Vroman 1989), incompleteness (Schachter 1988), and
selectivity (Hawkins 2000), all embodying some form of non-robust learning. Research thus far has found two scenarios, among others, in which lack
of learning may occur. One situation can be characterized as “poverty-ofstimulus”; that is, there is a lack of input – particularly positive evidence
or “primary linguistic data” (Schwartz 1993) – in the learning environment.
The other situation can be characterized as “presence-of-stimulus”; that is,

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there is an abundant supply of input in the learning environment. Fossilization concerns only the latter scenario.
Fossilization can take multiple guises in L2 output. For example, it can
show up as “residual optionality” (Papp 2000; Sorace 1993: 140), a phenomenon whereby “a steady state is reached in which the target option is strongly
but not categorically preferred and the non-target option surfaces in some
circumstances”. In (9), we give an example featuring the overproduction of
overt referential subject pronouns in the near-native Italian grammar of
native speakers of English:
(9) a. Perchè Lucia non ha preso le chiavi?
Why Lucia not has taken the keys
‘Why didn’t Lucia take her keys?’
b. Perchè lei pensava di trovarti a casa.
Because she thought of find-you at home
‘Because she thought she would find you at home.’
c. Perché pensava di trovarti a casa.
Because thought of find-you at home
‘Because she thought she would find you at home.’ (Sorace 2003)
In a discourse environment such as the above, where (9a) asks why Lucia did
not take her keys, and (9b) explains why she did not, Anglophone speakers,
who were near-native speakers of Italian and whose L2 grammar embraced
both the +/– marking of subject options, overtly marked the subject lei in a
consistent fashion, whereas native speakers of Italian did not, as shown in
(9c). The residual optionality speaks to a probabilistic mastery of the distributional constraints on a target language syntactic feature.
Fossilization may also manifest itself as unitary persistence in the linguistic deviance from the target. Examples abound in longitudinal databases.
For example, Lardiere’s (1998, 2007) longitudinal study reports that the
subject, Patty, in spite of her long-term immersion in the target language environment, remained unchanged in marking the past tense in her L2 production over the study period of eight years. In addition to the multifarious behavior of fossilization, research has revealed that fossilization is
selective. Going back to Patty, while her past tense marking consistently
appeared impoverished, “her mastery of pronominal marking [was] perfect”, according to Lardiere (2007: 213), suggesting, inter alia, that fossilization occurs alongside acquisition. What explains such selectivity? More

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pertinently, what accounts for fossilization, the pinnacle of acquisitional
complexity?
In Han (2004), some 50 fossilization accounts are garnered from the literature, two of which are particularly popular: biological maturation and L1
interference. Neither of them, however, is explanatorily adequate, nor is any
of the rest. The biological account, invoking the presence and effects of a
critical period (Lenneberg 1967), may seem to explain quite well why the
overwhelming majority of adult L2 learners is not very successful – falling
short of achieving a grammatical competence comparable to that of a native
speaker, but it does not seem to fare as well with the widely observed interlearner variable success, only to remain a far cry from accounting for selective fossilization in individual learners. The L1 account,5 on the other hand,
which largely kindles the spirit of the early Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis
(Lado 1957), appears able to explain inter-learner variable success, including inter-learner difference in fossilization, but unable to explain away intralearner selectivity as observed in Patty.
Nevertheless, the L1 perspective must not be taken lightly. As Lardiere
(2007: 205) notes, “it seems entirely plausible that some or all of a learner’s
native language(s) constitutes a point of departure for second language acquisition (…)” (cf. Schwartz and Sprouse 1996). Similarly, VanPatten (2007:
170) asserts that “the first language is not the only source of all developmental problems in acquisition but it is the only source of non-developmental
problems (…)”. The relevance of L1 to fossilization has been fully captured
in the Multiple Effects Principle (Selinker and Lakshmanan 1992), where L1 is
posited as a necessary or privileged co-factor in setting up fossilization.
Other seemingly promising accounts for fossilization include “sensitivity” and “perceptual salience” (Long 2003; Schnitzer 1993). On the latter,
however, Lardiere (2007: 233) comments:
I remain rather pessimistic that the various factors cited by Long [2003] as comprising perceptual salience can be objectively quantified or operationalized in a
way such that they would actually be perceived equally by all learners (…) as if they
were entities “out there” in the world rather than a function of individual learners’
own perceptions filtered through the lens of their own experience, processing capacities, and preexisting linguistic representations.

Similarly, sensitivity, to us, intuitively feels adequate for inter-learner differences but inadequate for intra-learner selective fossilization. Thus, theoretically speaking, what the field appears to be in need of is a theory that can ac5

A case par excellence of the L1 account is the well-known Hierarchy of Difficulty proposed by Stockwell et al. (1965).

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count for not just one facet of second language acquisition but its multiple
facets, including both acquisition and fossilization (cf. Bley-Vroman 2009),
and importantly, that can explicate and predict inter-learner and intra-learner
differences.
A recent attempt towards that end is Han’s (2009) Selective Fossilization Hypothesis. The Selective Fossilization Hypothesis identifies combinations of L1
markedness and L2 input robustness as determinants of acquisitional complexity, ranging from acquisition to fossilization. As illustrated by the three
panels in Figure 2, L1 markedness (Panel a) is determined by frequency and
variability. Thus, a marked form is one that is infrequent and variable, while
an unmarked form is one that is frequent and consistent. Similarly, L2 input
robustness is made up of frequency and variability (Panel b): High frequency
and low variability would render the input robust; conversely, low frequency
and high variability would render the input non-robust. These two broad
variables, viz., L1 markedness and L2 input robustness, along with their four
sub-variables, viz., +/– frequency and +/– variability, then intersect to create four zones (Panel c), among which there is an acquisition zone (II) and a
fossilization zone (IV). Hence, following this hypothesis, predictions can be
made about the acquisitional complexity of specific linguistic features. Features that fall into the fossilization zone are putatively the most complex.
Conversely, features in the acquisition zone are the least complex. Features
falling into the remaining two zones, on the other hand, can go either way.
That is, they either are acquirable or fossilizable, depending on individual
learners’ ability factors such as working memory and sensitivity.
Furthermore, the Selective Fossilization Hypothesis allows predictions on
differential degrees of complexity vis-à-vis specific linguistic features. This
function is represented by the concentric circles in (c), with the outer circle
connoting “greater degree of ”. Thus, features falling in the fossilization zone
may be of differential complexity, as are features in each of the other zones.
There are at least two ways to validate the Selective Fossilization Hypothesis. One is through making and verifying its predictions, and the other
through mapping out across the zones features that have been empirically established to be easy or difficult. By way of illustration, let us consider two
syntactic constructions, Subject-Adverb-Verb (SAV) and Subject-Verb-Adverb-Object (SVAO), the production of which by Francophone speakers in
their L2 English has been amply investigated. First off, some crosslinguistic
facts about these constructions are to be noted: The Subject-Adverb-Verb
construction is permissible – and frequent – in English (John often kisses Mary)
but not in French (*Jean souvent embrasse Marie), and the reverse is true for the
Subject-Verb-Adverb-Object construction (Jean embrasse souvent Marie / *John

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ZhaoHong Han and Wai Man Lew

Figure 2. The Selective Fossilization Hypothesis (Han 2009)

kisses often Mary). Next, let us turn to the relevant empirical research. Studies
by White (1991) and Trahey and White (1993) have consistently shown that
Francophone speakers are able to learn, through input flood (i.e., providing
learners with a deluge of positive evidence) or explicit instruction (i.e., ruleoriented explanation and corrective feedback), Subject-Adverb-Verb but not
Subject-Verb-Adverb-Object, the latter reportedly persisting into advanced
levels of learning (see, e.g., Sheen 1980; White 1989). Such empirical findings
accord with the predictions of the Selective Fossilization Hypothesis, in light
of which the Subject-Adverb-Verb word order is placed in the acquisition
zone, because it falls off the marked end of L1 markedness and on the robust
end of L2 input. Conversely, Subject-Verb-Adverb-Object falls in the fossilization zone, due to the dual fact that it is unmarked in the L1 and the target
language input is non-robust (i.e., there is no direct evidence to preempt it).
Therefore, Subject-Verb-Adverb-Object is of greater acquisitional complexity than Subject-Adverb-Verb for Francophone speakers learning English as
the L2.

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Acquisitional complexity, as we have conjectured, should be most evident
at the level of form-meaning-function mapping, and hence in language in
use. In the remainder of this section, we focus on this specific type of complexity. The construction that we choose for illustrative purposes is exemplified in the following hypothetical utterance: Although there are multiple types
of complexity, but we are going to focus on one type. Anyone with a little more
than the slightest sensitivity, when tuning into the L2-English production of
native speakers of Chinese, can often spot the ‘although/but’ construction
as a systematic occurrence. Last year, one of us was sitting in on a Chinese
educational linguistics course, and the professor, a native speaker of Chinese who had lived and taught in the United States for 20 years, used the
‘although/but’ construction more than a hundred times over the semester,
with no variation whatsoever. The high frequency of this construction in this
professor’s output had to do with the fact that he liked using it for laying emphasis on the points that he wanted his students to remember. Several questions should arise, for our present purposes. For example, why is the ‘although/but’ construction so persistent? Or why is the English ‘although’
construction so complex that in spite of 20 years of immersion in the target language environment, the professor, who otherwise seemed quite proficient overall, could not completely acquire it?
Before exploring answers to these questions, let us first of all locate the
construction on the selective fossilization map (Figure 2c). The ‘although/
but’ construction has a direct correspondence in the L1, Chinese, where it is
frequent and invariant, hence unmarked; semantically and pragmatically, it is
similar to the English ‘although’ construction. The target language input, on
the other hand, while most of the time reliably exhibiting ‘although’ used
alone without ‘but’, is deficient at times, to the extent (a) that the input consistency is sometimes disrupted by the co-occurrence in the same context of
sentences such as He didn’t go and visit his aunt yesterday, even though he had said he
would. But he did this morning, and, more pertinently, (b) that the input consistency does not constitute direct negative evidence, though arguably containing “indirect negative evidence” (Chomsky 1981), on the infelicity of the
‘although/but’ construction. As such, the input is not quite robust. Consequently, the ‘although/but’ construction falls in the fossilization zone.
Work by Slobin may help explicate the persistence of the ‘although/but’
construction in the Chinese-English interlanguage. Slobin (2003) argued that
in each language there are semantic elements that are habitually encoded by
either grammatical means (e.g., morphological elements, construction types)
or obligatory lexemes (or non-encoded). Moreover, according to Slobin
(2003), habitually encoded semantics tends to have higher codability (i.e.,

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ease of expression of the relevant categories), and higher codability often
means higher accessibility. The implication is that the unmarked nature of
‘although/but’ (i.e., in terms of form and meaning) in the L1 lends the expression to easy access in language production, including L2 production.
This, however, is only part of the explanation.
The other part of the explanation can be gleaned from Slobin’s (1987:
435) Thinking-for-Speaking Hypothesis:
We encounter the contents of the mind in a special way when they are being accessed for use. There is a process of “thinking for speaking” in which cognition
plays a dynamic role within the framework of linguistic expression. In the evanescent time frame of constructing utterances in discourse, one fits one’s thoughts
into available linguistic forms.

Slobin further notes that
Each native language has trained its speakers to pay different kinds of attention
to events and experiences when talking about them. This training is carried out in
childhood and is exceptionally resistant to restructuring in adult second-language
acquisition. (1996: 89)

Taken together, these insights imply that the ‘although/but’ construction, as
part of the Chinese professor’s linguistic upbringing, has served as the default frame of his thinking for speaking, and as such, it is readily available for
use not only when he communicates in his L1 but also in his L2 English, especially in circumstances demanding his focus of attention on meaning, such
as teaching a class in his L2.
To further pin down the locus of persistence, let us refer to Levelt’s (1989)
speech production model. This model recognizes three major phases in
the speech production process, termed respectively Conceptualizer, Formulator,
and Articulator. The Conceptualizer is a phase where thoughts and messages
are generated; the Formulator phase is one in which linguistic resources are
mustered to encode the thought or message; and the Articulator phase is
where the encoded thought and message is orally delivered. Whereas this
process should apply to both L1 and L2 speech production, in L2 production it is likely to undergo some alterations. For one thing, the preverbal
message (that is, the outcome of the Conceptualizer) is likely L1-based –
thinking in the L1, so to speak. For another, the grammatical encoding
within the Formulator possibly involves translation from the L1 into the L2,
even though the phonological encoding may happen within the L2. The outcome of such a chain of modified processes is likely to be some form of “interlanguage” (Selinker 1972) that looks neither entirely like the target language nor the L1. If this line of reasoning is correct, then the root cause of

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207

persistence of deviance is not simply a surface transfer of a lexico-syntactic frame from the L1 as often assumed, but, more profoundly, an L1-based
thought process serving as the substrate. This phenomenon can be characterized as L1 thinking for L2 speaking, and is illustrated in Figure 3.
According to Levelt (1989), during the Conceptualizer phase of speech
production, the speaker executes two types of planning – macro and micro –
in order to generate a message. During ‘macro-planning’, the speaker selects
and molds information in such a way that its expression will be an appropriate means for conveying the intention. In this phase, the speaker spells out
his/her communicative intention and marshals the appropriate information
whose expression will reveal the intention to the addressee. During the second phase, ‘micro-planning’, the speaker brings all this information into perspective, marking the information status of referents as ‘given’ and ‘new’
for the addressee, assigning topic and focus, and so on. Subsequently, the
speaker casts his/her message in an utterance of some sort. In the case of L2

Figure 3. L1 thinking for L2 speaking (adapted from Levelt 1989)

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production – or more pertinently, the ‘although/but’ case in question – it is
likely that after the macro-planning phase, micro-planning is done in the L1
frame, leading to what we have referred to above as ‘L1 thinking for L2
speaking’. Thereafter, the rest of the speech production process comes down
to searching through the L2 systems for means (syntactic, morphological,
phonological, etc.) to convey the L1-shaped message.
This view, though seemingly highly speculative, readily finds its theoretical support in the L2 literature. For example, Larsen-Freeman (1997: 197),
promoting a dynamic systems view on SLA process, acknowledges that “a
neural commitment to the L1 can lead to the L1’s becoming a strong attractor (or a stabilizing factor) in a dynamic system”. The neuronal commitment
to the L1 referred to here is what other researchers have referred to elsewhere as “L1 entrenchment”, whose linguistic correlates – in light of the
discussion in this section – are unmarked form-meaning constructions. A
further explication of this correlation, however, would be beyond the scope
of this chapter. Instead, we now turn to more systematic empirical evidence
of the persistence of L1 thinking for L2 speaking, which we take as the most
compelling indicator of acquisitional complexity.

3.3. Further evidence on acquisitional complexity
The examples presented in this section are drawn from the spontaneous
writings (1995–2009) produced by an adult male native speaker of Chinese,
pseudo-named Geng, who had been living and working in the target language environment for 15 years. Ongoing reports on the case subject can
be found in Han (1998, 2000, 2006, 2010). Examples (10)-(12) illustrate the
kinds of variations that have persisted in Geng’s use of English plurals.
(10) We have around < 1500 boxes.
(11) I got some impression that they are hiring C++ developer.
(12) This is great!!! Especially after so much frustrations. (Han, 2010)
Example (12) illustrates the overextension of an interlanguage rule – that
when a noun is quantified, it should be plural marked. Such overuse of plural marking along with underuse (see [11]) and seemingly targetlike use (see
[10]) cannot be coherently explained unless one assumes that the underlying
driving force was the L1-based thinking for speaking. It is how one would say
it in one’s L1, or more precisely, how one would mean it in the L1 that drove
the L2 production. The underlined NPs in (10) and (12) both carried the L1

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209

meaning of ‘specific’, while (11), as inferred from its discourse context, carried the L1 meaning of ‘non-specific’. Thus, in Geng’s L2, the concept of
‘number’ was associated more with a quantifier than with a noun, formwise – and with ‘specific’ in meaning – resulting, therefore, in the plural morpheme being employed predominantly for quantified nouns to encode the
meaning of ‘specificity’. From a target-oriented perspective, then, Geng’s use
of plurals was only partially accurate, because in the target language English,
plurals can be applied to both quantified nouns for expressing the meaning
of ‘specific’ and non-quantified nouns for the meaning of ‘non-specific’ (e.g.,
Cats are cute).
Examples (13)-(15) illustrate the kinds of variations that have persisted in
Geng’s use of articles.6
(13) I’m looking for the file you send me.
(14) They couldn’t solve the problem at this moment.
(15) I’ll park car to some convenient place and take train home. (Han, 2010)
In all three instances above, the use (or non-use) of the definite article the
fully corresponds to the L1 way of speaking. In (13) and (14), the conveys the
L1 meaning of zhe4ge4/
‘this’. Indeed, Geng’s use of the definite article
the seems to pattern after the Chinese demonstrative determiner, which accounts for his underuse of the in (15). In his L1 Chinese, definiteness or
indefiniteness is mostly not encoded grammatically, but in a subset of discourse contexts, demonstrative determiners are used to convey definiteness,
especially where specificity is emphasized. This form-meaning-function
mapping, however, appears far less frequently in Chinese when compared
with the definite article the in English (Lardiere 2007; Robertson 2000).
Likewise, Geng’s use of the English indefinite article a/an appears also to
be driven by his L1 thinking for speaking. As shown in examples (16)-(18),
a/an encodes the meaning of ‘one’, a numerical quantifier, rather than indefiniteness or lack of specificity.
(16) If that’s the case, then we need to have a quick way to reach them.
(17) … you should take rest for another day.
(18) I will then configure it in a right way. (Han, 2010)

6

See Han (2010) for a systematic report on Geng’s use of articles and plurals, including his ability to differentiate count and non-count nouns.

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Had (16) and (18) been said in Chinese, yi1ge4/
or yi1zhong3/
(‘one’) would have been used, but not in (17).
From a target language perspective, Geng appears to have learned, formwise, how to mark definiteness, indefiniteness, and number, but, as a function of his deeply ingrained L1 thinking for speaking, only partially acquired
what to mark, and marginally, when to mark it. Simply put, he has learned the
forms but has not quite mastered the form-meaning-function relations. Figures 4 and 5 illustrate the areas of fossilization and loci of difficulty, respectively.

Figure 4. Areas of fossilization

Figure 5. Loci of difficulty (adapted from Han 2010)

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Longitudinal data from Geng have consistently revealed that the what and
when, as illustrated in Figure 5, are the hardest to acquire, as the acquisition
process requires conceptual restructuring from the L1 thinking for speaking to the target language thinking for speaking, which, according to Slobin
(1987, 1996, 2003), is a most difficult, if not at all impossible, task for adult
L2 learners.
The L1-thinking-for-L2-speaking phenomenon is found not only in
Geng’s use of articles and plurals but also in his use of other constructions, as
shown in examples (19) to (23).
(19) I’m not sure if we could shut down all machines for long time as you suggested,
it’s our machine. Do you have other way to test it?
(20) I wish you a good luck in job hunting!
(21) This will take care of this week.
(22) There is some preparation need to be done (…)
(23) We find a number of lists, could show us this weekend. (Han, 2010)
Examples (19)-(23) display a seemingly disparate set of grammatical problems that are, nonetheless, united by a common denominator, namely, L1
thinking for speaking. Again, it is the way one would say it in Chinese, so to
speak, that gave rise to these expressions.
With regard to the ‘although/but’ construction discussed in the previous
section, Geng occasionally backslid to it in his spontaneous L2 production.
The persistence is displayed in examples (24a and b).
(24) a. Although I have one month left, but the school will close in
half month, so I must be hurry. (June 1996)
b. But I am worrying that although you told me our rate was
locked 60 days, but the paper I received says 45 days. (February 2009)
Thus, it can be concluded that 15 years of non-interrupted exposure to the
target language has not fundamentally altered the mode of the Conceptualizer and its interface with the Formulator in Geng’s L2. The vignette below,
based on the field notes taken by one of the researchers, further supports
this understanding:
One day, Geng asked about the word ‘permutation’ that he encountered in a book
he was reading, and was given an English explanation. The next day, he was again
reading the book and encountered the word again, and asked for and subsequently

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obtained more explanation. He finally came up with a matching word in Chinese,
zu3he2/
, and felt very satisfied. He kept saying that he would not remember
the word unless he knew what it was in Chinese. He even said that an English explanation was never sufficient for him, as it only allowed him a superficial understanding, but he understood the word thoroughly if he knew the Chinese ‘equivalent’.

4.

Conclusion

In this chapter, we have proposed a distinction between acquisitional complexity and developmental complexity, portraying the former as being defined by durability and the latter by quantity. Further, we have differentiated
acquisitional complexity and learning difficulty, arguing, among other things,
that the current mainstream approach to learning difficulty by virtue of its
prima facie focus on formal and functional complexity (see, e.g., Ellis 2003)
may be limiting and limited. We advocate, instead, that researchers turn their
attention to L2 endstate grammars for more deterministic evidence of acquisitional complexity – the summation of collective difficulty as exhibited
in individual learners’ L2 ultimate attainment.7
On the basis of a qualitative analysis of select instances of fossilization
documented in such learners, we have claimed that the loci of acquisitional
complexity are cognitive, associated, specifically, with the process of establishing form-meaning but, particularly, form-meaning-function relations (cf.
Terrell 1986, 1991). The crux of our claim is simply this: Forms – be they
syntactic, morphological, or lexical – are acquisitionally simple and hence acquirable, but meanings and functions are acquisitionally complex, and hence
not always acquirable. This claim is fully in keeping with a categorical finding
from empirical investigations with L2 near-native speakers,8 as summarized
by Sorace (2005: 55): “constructions that belong to the syntax proper are
fully acquired in L2 acquisition (…) In contrast, constructions that require
the integration of syntactic knowledge with knowledge from other domains

7

8

The general stipulation in the literature for determining learners reaching the ultimate attainment stage is five or more years of continuous residency in the target
language context (Birdsong and Paik 2008).
Sorace (2005: 58) notes that adult learners who have reached the near-native level
while continuing to experience full exposure to the L2 can be assumed to have
reached the stage of “ultimate attainment”, and that any remaining deviances
found in their grammar relative to the target grammar constitute unequivocal evidence of permanent non-learning: “Investigating these differences is tantamount
to testing the limits of L2 acquisition”.

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213

present residual optionality in L2”. Here, “other domains” primarily implicate semantics and discourse pragmatics.
Following the Selective Fossilization Hypothesis (Han 2009), we regard
L1 markedness and L2 input robustness and their interaction as a harbinger of acquisitional complexity, while we consider L1 thinking for speaking
a root cause for what is acquisitionally most complex in L2 learning – evidenced as permanent L1 thinking for L2 speaking.
The postulation of acquisitional complexity is not intended to supplant
developmental complexity but rather to complement it, as ultimately it will
be the understanding of both that will bring us substantially closer to a more
adequate appreciation of L2 acquisition. While research on developmental
complexity may give us access to the process and the attainable product of
L2 acquisition, research on acquisitional complexity will help us ascertain
and understand its limits. The latter is just as important as the former: As
Birdsong and Paik (2008: 425) have recently reminded us, a central concern
of SLA research is “to identify, characterize, and understand putative constraints on L2 learning (…) and without a clear mapping-out of the upper limits of attainment, researchers are deprived of the key points of reference in
their exploration of constraints on learning”. Moreover, as Lardiere (2006)
has suggested, the research construct most sensitive to recalcitrant difficulty
in L2 learning is fossilization – permanent linguistic deviance from the targeted norms – found in learners at the stage of ultimate attainment. Pursuits of acquisitional complexity can therefore be expected to contribute to a
deeper understanding of human cognition in general.

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