language acquistion through immersion — 17th-century proposals for Latin

Sorry for my lack of posts recently. My Internet connection at home has been out for more than a week. I’m writing this from work during my lunch break.

While reading Latin or the Empire of a Sign (title in the original French: Le Latin ou l’empire d’un signe XVIe-XXe Siècle), by Françoise Waquet, I came across mention of several proposals from the seventeenth century and later for the creation of “Latin towns.”
cover of book on Latin

The originators of these projects started from a double observation: on the one hand the weakness of Latin after a long and difficult learning process; on the other, the speed with which a child suddenly immersed in a foreign environment learns to speak its language. In 1621 Antoine de Laval suggested that the King of France “create a Latin colony for Monseigneur the Dauphin his son and for all the princes, great lords, nobles and other children of good houses”: the exclusive use of Latin and the “pleasant” methods of instruction that would be adopted would guarantee rapid and perfect mastery of spoken Latin. Along similar lines, but more modest, was Jean Cécile Frey’s proposal for a Latin college which children would enter at the age of two; there, along with their masters and servants, they would use nothing but the Latin language in conversation and play. Thus at the age of five they would speak “more Latin, and in a more Attic fashion” than children who had spent ten painful years at school. Daniel Georg Morhof believed that it would take about twenty years to establish a Latin town where even the artisans would speak Latin; to get started all that would be needed were six or seven good Latinists, who would teach Latin to poor children of both sexes; these would then learn a profession; they in their turn would then teach Latin to their apprentices, and in this way a Latin society would take shape

Of course, nothing came of these proposals for Latin — or any of the others to follow for that language. The concept of language villages for English, though — that’s another story.

Another anecdote:

Gasparo Gozzi noted that at Padua, in the unanimous judgement of the professors, hardly a tenth of the students — perhaps thirty out of 300 — “had a middling understanding of the Latin language”. How could they follow lectures in an unintelligible language? “It is true,” Gozzi added, “that after such lectures, the students go to hear the explanation at a private school.”

I stumbled across this book while browsing in a bookstore and been having a lot of fun reading it, and not just because of the parallels between the situation with Latin and those of Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) and Chinese characters. Highly recommended.

4 thoughts on “language acquistion through immersion — 17th-century proposals for Latin

  1. This brings up an idea – start a Chinese colony without Chinese characters, teaching children to write only in pinyin (with the tonemarks, spacing, and preferring the polysyllabic forms to the monosyllabic semi-literary form) only. It would be very interesting to see the results – if it works, it’ll be the death of the character system. That, paradoxically, is why the idea will never be put into practice.

  2. In a way, this has already been done — in Vietnam, where the success of a romanized script has been spectacular. Predictably, as you noted, this receives almost no mention in China other than the occasional smug dismissal of Vietnam’s achievements.

    And then there’s Korea. But mentions in China focus on the continued use of Chinese characters rather than the marvelous efficiency of hangul.

    A successful project along the same lines as you mentioned was run in Japan shortly after World War II. Unfortunately, it was sabotaged by conservatives and misinterpreted by others, as detailed in J. Marshall Unger’s Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan: Reading Between the Lines. (This site features a sample chapter: Scholarly Neglect.)

    I remain amazed by the vehemence of resistance in China to taking a scientific approach to the situation.

  3. A friend of mine recently remarked that China can never learn anything from Vietnam. I think it all boils down to a misconceived and unfortunate sense of ethnocentric nationalism (almost to the point of racism, you can argue). China as the centre of the universe, all the surrounding states are mere vassals and can never possibly find a better way to write than using characters. The irony is that this friend of mine is Canadian Chinese and can barely write characters herself. With this kind of attitude persisting even amongst the allegedly more open minded Westernised Chinese, there will never be change. With this kind of reactionary sentiment in vogue, I wouldn’t be surprised if some jackass invented “Computer programming with characters only” as an alternative to the alphabet. Let’s all count the strokes………

  4. Hello – I was familiar with these ideas for learning Latin through total immersion – and this is one of the reasons I started the Latinum podcast – to provide enough material in Latin online so that a student who was serious about rapidly getting to grips with the language could fill their MP3 player with Latin, and listen to it, and interact with it (I have made interactive sessions). Not the ‘real thing’, but as an ersatz immersive environment it seems to work quite well.

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