An area of language acquisition that has attracted considerable scholarly (and lay) interest is the so-called critical period hypothesis. This proposes a critical period in childhood during which people need to acquire a language in order to become fully proficient in it.
Abby Kaplan’s new book Women Talk More than Men: And Other Myths about Language Explained has a helpful chapter on this, investigating whether the ability to acquire a language falls sharply or gradually after a certain age, whether the progressive difficulty in acquiring a second language is universal or admits exceptions, and so on.
In examining whether early childhood exposure to language is vital for its acquisition, Kaplan writes that one source of evidence is ‘the very sad cases of people who weren’t exposed to a language as children, usually due to extreme abuse or neglect’.
A famous example is Genie, who was found in 1970 aged 13 having spent most of her life until then in isolation.
Genie was discovered not long after scholars such as [Eric] Lenneberg and Noam Chomsky had begun publishing claims about the biological nature of language, so her case was of intense interest to linguists. She eventually learned to say a few words but never came close to acquiring a full language; therefore, some linguists argue that the example of Genie supports the critical period hypothesis: because she was too old when she started learning language, she was never able to do so successfully.
But of course it’s not that simple. As Kaplan observes, Genie’s story is consistent with the hypothesis but does not prove it – we can’t establish how much her failure to acquire language is a result of her lack of exposure to it, and how much owes to other factors in her severely deprived and abusive upbringing. Kaplan continues:
Did Genie fail to learn language simply because she never heard it, for example, or did the abuse make her incapable of learning language? Is it possible that she already had language problems at birth? (It seems that one of the reasons Genie’s father neglected her is that he believed she was mentally retarded, although of course today we can’t know whether he was right.)
Genie is still alive, in care, but the details are not publicly known. Books have been written about her, including one by Russ Rymer, who explored the story in the New Yorker a quarter-century ago. On the linguistic side there is Genie: A Psycholinguistic Study of a Modern Day ‘Wild Child’ (1977) by Susan Curtiss, who became close to Genie.
Genie’s story is haunting and desperately sad. I can’t do justice to it here, or to her. Linda Garmon’s Nova documentary Secret of the Wild Child (1994) is a good place to start – but be warned, it’s pretty heartbreaking. There’s a transcript here.
For other films of linguistic interest, see my 2013 post, um, ‘Films of linguistic interest’.