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The Next Genie January 22, 2007

Posted by Johan in Cognition, Developmental Psychology, Psycholinguistics.
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A feral child is all over the news again, this time from Cambodia. The woman in question communicates only in primitive gestures, walks bent over, and was found stark naked, trying to steal food.

I wouldn’t be surprised if any number of developmental psychologists in general and psycholinguists in particular are booking flights to Cambodia as we speak. There are obvious parallells to Genie, a severe victim of neglect. Genie was essentially raised in a box, cared for (in the loosest sense of the term) by a father who would only growl at her. When she was rescued at age 13, she only knew a few fragmented phrases. Despite years of intense speech therapy, Genie failed to acquire anything resembling grammar. Her vocabulary expanded, but she continued to speak in two- or three-word phrases.

Genie’s case has been cited as strong evidence for a critical period in language development. Presumably, because Genie missed this critical period, she was unable to acquire grammatical, fluent language. If Mowglisa (as she is so tastefully called in the Swedish press) turns out to be a genuine case, she may present another opportunity to observe the results of the ultimate experiment.

Yet, as far as experiments go, the case of Genie is not a particularly convincing one. It is true that she was raised in an all but language-free environment. However, she was also subjected to extreme physical abuse, she was deprived of social interactions, and she was, for all intents and purposes, locked into a single room for 13 years. To attribute any language difficulties following such treatment to missing a “critical period” is perhaps not seeing the forest for the trees.

That’s not to say that critical periods don’t exist in acquiring language. For example, you may have noticed that people who learn a second language as children learn to speak it with no accent, while people who learn the language as adults may have vast vocabularies and perfect grammar, but nevertheless, they will not lose the accent. There may even be an overreaching critical period for acquiring grammar, somewhere between infancy and adolescence. But that cannot be concluded from the case of Genie.

Still, I would suggest reading up on the case – it’s quite a story, in its own right. The wikipedia entry cited above is a good starting point.

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