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LINGUIST List 16.1834

Fri Jun 10 2005

Disc: Re: 16.1765, Review: Thomas (2004)

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        1.    Ronald Sheen, Re: History of Ling/2nd Lang Acquisition: Thomas

Message 1: Re: History of Ling/2nd Lang Acquisition: Thomas
Date: 10-Jun-2005
From: Ronald Sheen <rsheenausharjah.edu>
Subject: Re: History of Ling/2nd Lang Acquisition: Thomas

Rudy Troike's response to my query implicitly reveals the problem in
Heather Marsden's generalisation concerning the wide extent of
Greek-Latin bilingualism among Roman children starting school. He
writes of his "impression" and of the "elites" of Europe.

As to impressions, they are clearly suspect because they are not based
on empirical studies and are frequently the source of the abundant
myths which "inform" our impressions of the past. Take the following
as an example. It is highly likely that most people consider the
Spanish as being top of the league in terms of the persecution of
heretics during the Spanish Inquisition. Yet, records reveal that
both the French and the English (separately) were responsible for the
execution of more heretics than were the Spanish during this same

As to "elites", this is perhaps where the problem lies. I suspect
that the bilingualism applies only to the Roman elite - in other words
to a very small proportion of the population. This assumption is
based not on evidence but on the reality of life. Even in the most
affluent of cultures, the degree of affluence does not extend to the
point where everyone can afford tutors to enable their offspring to
become bilingual in their L1 and the prestige language of the day. I
would hazard a guess that most Roman soldiers and ordinary citizens (a
large part of the population) did not have Greek tutors and that their
children were far from bilingual.

A further point concerns the effect of tutor instruction which could
hardly have amounted to immersion. Of course, in the elite families
there were probably both nannies and tutors which would have amounted
to a form of immersion but they constituted a very small part of the

What we need here are two contributions. First, both the reviewer,
Heather Marsden, and the author, Margaret Thomas, need to inform us of
the extent of the empirical evidence upon which their generalisations
were made. Second, and more importantly, we need the input of
specialist historians of the relevant period who have done research on
this particular topic.

Whatever this results in, I would still maintain that the reviewer's
reasoning concerning the lack of interest in second language
acquisition is something of a non sequitur.

A further point I forgot to mention in my intitial post concerns the
author's only going back as far as the Romans in her research.
Germain (1993) reveals active interest in foreign language learning in
the Sumerian period. Then again, this is perhaps because she limited
her field to "Western" thought on the matter.

Ron Sheen

Germain, C. (1993). Evolution de l'enseignement des langues: 5000 ans
d'histoire. Paris: Hurtubise HMH, Ltée.

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