Say a language has possessive adjectives that vary in form according to the gender and number of the noun they modify e.g. French ton, ta, tes.
When these are presented to students in French class, the presentation goes something like this:
we use ton when the following word, the word it modifies, is masculine. When that word is feminine, we use ta; and if it’s plural, we use tes, regardless of the gender.
With that explanation and many drills and worksheets later, we find Bob saying ’Comment va ton travail, Joe’ b/c Joe is male, and ’Comment va ta travail, Vicky’, b/c Vicky is female. That’s how the kids heard ’masculine’ and ’feminine’. The worksheets are corrected dutifully by the teacher and the corrections are ignored by the students.
Over the next year or so, students can be relied on to use ’ton’ when ’you’ is a male person and ’ta’ when you is a female person, regardless of the gender of the modified noun. Teachers will call that fossilization and argue that more corrections are in order. They further argue that error correction is essential, otherwise students will “fossilize”. What they do not realize is that the students pay no attention. They had a geometry exam coming up and a project due in history so they grabbed onto this male/female thing like English ’he’ and ’she’, and ran with it. They do not use the personal adjectives correctly b/c they don’t care and have no reason to care. More red marks? So? They still pass b/c few teachers will fail a student b/c he doesn’t get ton/ta/tes as long as he dutifully turns in those worksheets.
Why is this not fossilizaton? Because that’s not what fossilization means. Fossilization refers to people who actually use L2, French in this case. They don’t listen closely to notice how their L2 differs from natives’ and b/c the natives are perfectly able to comprehend ’ton tante’. Teachers are very concenred with details; it’s been referred to as nit-picky and bow-tied anality. Most people, even native speakers, do not regard that as the essential item in the communication process.
If you want your students to get noun/adjective gender & number concord down, you need to inundate them with tons of meaningful communication (Joe, I know who stole your dog. Mary, Joe told me he was going to the dance with Rebecca, not you) in which the pairing of adjectives with nouns occurs. Teaching a rule works only when the student understands the rule and when the student has time to think of the rule and apply it. Practice is of questionable value when that practice is a decontextualized classroom ritual.
Unfortunately, by the looks of these listservs I am on, fl teachers are not about to give up their carefully crafted (?) but flawed explanations. If explanations worked, we would have produced students proficient in L2 a long time ago. This doesn’t rule out explanations; they can be very valuable for Monitor use and for seeing how the language works. You just cannot expect acquisition from explanations.