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Title: Re: History of Ling/2nd Lang Acquisition: Thomas
Submitter: Ronald Sheen
Description: 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 period.

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 population.

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.
Date Posted: 10-Jun-2005
Linguistic Field(s): History of Linguistics
Language Acquisition
LL Issue: 16.1834
Posted: 10-Jun-2005

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