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TOEFL Tip #112: Fossilized Grammar: Eliminating Persistent Errors

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on July 29, 2011

Communicating in a second language at a level equal to that of a native speaker is difficult. Second language speakers often stumble over certain aspects grammar, no matter how long or how intensely they have studied the language. This is called fossilized grammar. Just like ancient plant or animal remains that have hardened over a long time, fossilized grammar errors are mistakes that have become embedded in a person’s way of speaking and writing.

Some second language learners might think that fossilized grammar is not a problem at all. People they encounter in their everyday lives understand what they are saying with minimal difficulty – they can work, shop, travel, and so on, without needing translation or assistance. They think that as long as a few grammar mistakes do not get in the way of what they mean to communicate, those mistakes don’t matter.

But they do matter on the TOEFL. Fossilized grammar in the Speaking and Writing sections of the exam can give the impression that the test taker is not as proficient in English as he or she really is. Strictly English’s experience has repeatedly shown that how students communicate on the TOEFL is as important as what they say. Spoken and written answers that contain many grammar errors are unlikely to receive scores higher than the mid 20s, and will probably be much lower than that.

So what can you do to eliminate fossilized grammar? First, you have to identify what your particular pieces of fossilized grammar are – every second language learner has different stumbling points. Record yourself having several different conversations, and make a transcript of what you say. Look for patterns in your speech. If you have trouble identifying grammar mistakes, ask a native speaker to help you. Do the same with several pieces of writing: identify mistakes and look for patterns. If, for example, you see that you are regularly using the wrong verb tense, or your verbs and nouns do not match in number (he say, they claims), these are your fossils.

The next step is paying very close attention to what you’re saying when you communicate. That focus will help you make the correct grammar choice each time. It’s easier to make mistakes when we are speaking quickly, or are not really choosing our words carefully (even for native speakers!). Do this repeatedly, every day, every time you speak or write. Only by carefully correcting yourself each time will you eventually be able to eliminate that fossil from your speech or writing.

As you prepare for the TOEFL, assess whether you have fossilized grammar in your speaking or writing. If you take steps to eliminate those persistent mistakes, you will create a much better impression on the exam.


Categories: Speaking,TOEFL Preparation,Writing

4 comments so far. Leave a comment.

  1. StrictlyEnglish | Blog » The Year In Review

    wrote on December 30, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    [...] translation programs, TOEFL as a test of effective communication, the “J-Curve” of learning, fossilized grammar, possibilities for rapid improvement, and how TOEFL scores correspond to native ability in [...]

  2. Lisa

    wrote on August 3, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    “Fossilized grammar” is a great term! So here’s my issue with it: my partner is a native English speaker who constantly says “have went” or “had went” instead of “have gone” and “had gone.” His whole family of origin speaks this way and to him the correct usage sounds wrong. He has given me permission to correct him, but after several years, the fossil has remained intact. What is the best way for him to eliminate this error? He has well-educated clients (a lot of doctors), and fears their reaction to his grammatical mistakes.

  3. Strictly English TOEFL Tutors

    wrote on August 3, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Never let ONE instance of it slip. It’s the only way to eradicate it. Also, try to find a family of problems that circle around the same basic concern. This will up the frequency of correction, and hence up the likelihood of success!

  4. Luu, Kim

    wrote on July 3, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    Actually, I have persistent errors. I often speak without articles and “s”. I also forget using a past tense in the sentences when I speak in the past. Moreover, I do not pronounce complete words, such as want ( I say: wan). I am trying to correct them everyday. Jon asks me to speak slowly, so I can fix these mistakes.

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