Scott Thornbury’s (De) Fossilisation diaries

fossil_1

Scott Thornbury in his (De) Fossilisation diaries http://scottthornburyblog.com/ tells of his experiences doing a Spanish course aimed at getting him beyond a certain point of proficiency; a point that he feels represents ”fossilisation”. When I read the first episode of this saga I thought it was a splendid project, and that Scott would do a great job of it. I have to say that I am very disappointed with the results. I think that Scott has done a very poor job of discussing the issues, of relating his experiences, and of drawing conclusions.

Scott’s account starts with some background and continues with his “Fossilization: is it terminal, doctor?” post, which fails to give any operational definition of the term. After that, the account goes rapidly downhill. His “So Just How Bad is it?” post gives some fairly well-considered measures of proficiency, but fails to critically evaluate them or make any decision about their relative merits; his “Back to School” gives a very sketchy account of what happened; “What are Classrooms Good For” follows and has little of interest; and the “What drives me?” post is, IMHO, hopelessly inadequate. This is followed by “Formulae For Success”, a myopic reliance on learning vocabulary, a turgid view of reading, and, the latest post: “Why Spanish?” In all, this is an enormously disappointing series of posts.

Scott starts with a discussion of fossilisation. As he says: “In the end, as Ortega (2009: 135) summarises it, ‘the notion of fossilization, while strongly intuitive, has proved to be extremely problematic to pin down’. If I’d thought twice, I might have called this blog ‘The (De-) Stabilization Diaries’ – but, then, would anyone have known what I was talking about?”. So at least we know that Scott is aware of the complexity of the matter he seeks to investigate, but we don’t know how he himself defines fossilisation. Surely, if you’re going to discuss such an important issue, you should give an operational definition of the construct “fossilisation”.

The “So Just How Bad is it?” post fails to discuss the limitations of the measures of proficiency listed, and limits itself to Scott’s modest protestations that the tests overestimated his level of proficiency. I would have expected more in the way of a critical evaluation of test procedures.

Scott’s account of his experiences as a student are particularly sparse and lacking in detail. I’ve seen hundreds of better accounts than this in first year MA papers. We get “Things I like” and “Things I am less keen on”. The remarks are interesting and perceptive, but they fail to give us a proper account of what actually happened.

“What are Classrooms Good For?” seems to me to be very weak indeed: nothing of real interest is stated.

The “What Drives me?” post is the worst of them all. Motivation is at the heart of SLA, and Scott gives a very poor account of this key construct. He says “I needed another theory of motivation that offered more hope. Dörnyei’s ‘motivational self system’ (2009a, 2009b) seemed to fit the bill, since it replaces the vague notion of ‘goal’ (or ‘value’) with the more fully elaborated notion of ‘self’, or at least ‘possible self’: ‘Possible selves act as “self-guides”, reflecting a dynamic, forward-pointing conception that can explain how someone is moved from the present towards the future’ (Dörnyei, 2009a: 213)”. After that, Dörnyei’s system is simply assumed, and informs the rest of Scott’s discussion. So Scott “needed” a theory, he found one, and then he applied it. Such intellectual laziness is, IMHO, unforgiveable. In reply to my protest that he had just assumed the veracity of Dörnyei’s theory, Scott replied “My way of ‘questioning’ the Dörnyei et al ‘stuff’ is to put it to the test. If the theory fits, wear it”. I replied “You’re not putting the Dörnyei theory to the test, you’re just adopting its “explanation” and interpreting what’s happened to you using that explanation uncritically”. No reply from Scott. There are a lot of important questions that should be asked of Dörnyei’s theory of motivation, especially in its latest form. I won’t go into them here, but Scott should have.

Scott’s next post deals with “Formulae for Success”. It deals very briefly with aspects of vocabulary learning. I’ve rarely seen such an incomplete and ill-considered post from him.

I can’t be bothered to deal with the last two posts in Scott’s account. What changes the whole sorry saga from dross to an almost worth-reading blog are the comments. Which leads me to suggest that, with a few exceptions (like, for example, The Secret DOS, who never fails to provide better content than any comment), blogs like Scott’s feed off their followers. And this leads to a new publishing scam: get a brand name; write a load of rubbish on a blog; get comments; cobble together a book.

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9 thoughts on “Scott Thornbury’s (De) Fossilisation diaries

  1. I enjoy the blog as a blog, but if Geoff expects more from someone with Scott’s credentials I wouldn’t say he’s wrong to. In any case from the perspective of an MA student it’s disappointing to see such animosity on display.

    • I’ve been friends with Scott for a long time. I have enormous respect for him as an academic and as a teacher / teacher trainer. What’s more, he is, in my opinion, a charming, generous, thoroughly decent man. Given that you, Mark, with some justification, see the exchange this way, I’ve deleted my and Connie’s comments. I’m sure Connie won’t mind.

  2. Successful writing takes account of the audience. Scott’s blog is a “diary” (albeit a public one – that’s the nature of blogs) which I’m sure is written as much to inspire others as to keep account of his own journey. As such, a fully academic critique doesn’t seem altogether rational or fair.

    Irrespective of this, I feel your argument might carry more weight if you adopted the same standards in your own writing as you seem to demand of Scott. The following, for example, is hardly becoming of a serious critique: “I can’t be bothered to deal with the last two posts in Scott’s account. What changes the whole sorry saga from dross to an almost worth-reading blog are the comments.”

    • Hi Olidedall,

      While I agree with you that “a fully academic critique doesn’t seem altogether rational or fair”, I suggest that you have absolutely no reason to imply that I was attempting one. My post consists of comments, not academic arguments and the post is written in an informal style, as your quote makes clear.

      Your second point is not, as you suggest, “irrespective” of the first. Rather, it relies on a related false assumption, viz: that I demand that Scott should adopt an “academic” standard in his blog. In fact, I demand no such thing.

      Thus, in my opinion, you are wrong twice, and your criticism has no force. I have often said, and I’ll say it again, that I respect Scott as a scholar and as an educator. Nevertheless, I felt that, on this occasion, Scott’s remarks on fossilisation, testing, motivation and successful language learning were well below the standard I expect from him, and that’s the opinion I voiced.

  3. IMHO your opinion was a most valid one. I too respect and admire the work Thornbury has done. However, I feel he was not up to his usual standard on his comments on fossilisation,successful language learning and testing. Motivation is a prime factor in all language learning and has never received the serious attention it deserves. Scott failed, I believe, in expressing this adequately.

  4. If you feel that Scott’s blog doesn’t live up to its (or its author’s) potential, could you possibly recommend any quality first person narratives of language learning that have been written with a proper understanding of the SLA process?

    Would you be willing to share your own language learning autobiography?

  5. Let me be clear: I was criticising one part of Scott’s account of his Spanish learning experiences, not his blog, or the general idea of telling us about what happened, which I thought was great.

    I would be willing to share my own language learning experiences but I can’t think of any good reason to do so.

  6. Thanks for all your replies,
    I realize that I asked a lot of questions all at once without really putting that much thought into my own comments. I’m quite new to the theoretical side of the field and I’ve found your blog to the best resource on the web for those considering doing a masters degree in TESOL or applied linguistics, or with just an interest in the field. You’ve kept me quite busy with your book recommendations alone.

    The temptation to pick your brain was too much, sorry for the question barrage.

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