Language acquisition and the ‘wild child’ Genie

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 - Secret of the Wild Child documentary PBS Nova

Image of Genie from the Nova documentary ‘Secret of the Wild Child’

Kaplan writes:

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’.

6 Responses to Language acquisition and the ‘wild child’ Genie

  1. John Cowan says:

    Susan Schaller’s book Man Without Words is about a deaf man who didn’t learn sign language until 27 but was completely languageless. This suggests that even if there is a critical period for learning to speak, there may be none for learning to sign. Interview with the author.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for the link, John – I’ll read the interview later. I haven’t read Schaller’s book but I learned of her research quite recently when I read Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation. That book devotes five pages to discussing Schaller’s work with ‘language-less people’, especially Ildefonso, and its implications for cognition.

  2. Genie is such a tough case; her story really captures people’s imagination. But as you note, it’s not really the best evidence for or against the hypothesis. For me, the findings (from people like David Birdsong) that we don’t find a sharp dropoff in language acquisition ability at the beginning of puberty, or the end of puberty, or really at any point, is a suggestion that it’s really just that on average, we get worse at it over time. That’d imply there is no real critical period, just that our ability to get all the different bits that go into language right fades gradually over time.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for your thoughts on this, Moti. There’s also the probability that different aspects of language learning become more difficult over time at different rates and in different ways. Lots of complicating factors, and it’s hard to control for them all! But in general, as you say, it seems likely there’s a gradual decline in our ability to become fully fluent in a language. Abby Kaplan writes that ‘it seems fairly safe to conclude that age probably matters, but it’s much less certain that the language-learning window ends abruptly’.

  3. Stewart McCauley says:

    There are some key differences between first- and second-language learning outcomes, but the evidence continues to mount that they stem from a range of factors that have nothing to do with innateness, things like 1) interference and blocking effects from already knowing a language, 2) general cognitive differences, 3) changes in neural plasticity and pre-frontal cortical development.

    Genie–like any mammal deprived of social stimulation throughout the course of development–is likely to have widespread deficits across a range of cognitive domains.

    The jury is nearly back in the room; language is a cultural rather than biological phenomenon.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Those are helpful insights, Stewart, thanks. On the cultural/biological debate, I finally picked up a copy of Dan Everett’s Language: The Cultural Tool and am greatly looking forward to it. (Tom Wolfe’s new one, not so much.)

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