The Critical Period for Language Acquisition and Feral Children

                       The Critical Period for Language Acquisition and Feral Children


When reading about language the text focused on two different approaches, the behavioral approach and the nativist approach. Behaviorists like B.F. Skinner believe that children acquire language through environmental stimuli, typically imitating their parents, and through trial and error with positive reinforcement they learn language. Nativists like Noam Chomsky believe that language is innate, and that children are born with a “universal grammar” wired into their brains. As I was reading about these two theories I remembered a story about a ‘feral child’ who had been severely neglected by her parents for the first twelve years of her life. Psychologists had an opportunity to observe and work with her, and their observations supported another theory, the critical period hypothesis for language acquisition.

The critical period hypothesis states that there is a critical age, before puberty, that one must learn language (Coronado, 2013)). If one has not learned to speak before puberty it is much more difficult, and sometimes impossible, to learn language and speak in a meaningful way (Coronado, 2013). This hypothesis has been supported by cases of feral children. Feral children have lived in social isolation with little to no human contact or care (Sinicki, 2016). There have been several cases of feral children, and each one of them had difficulty learning language.

Danielle Crockett was severely neglected with no care beyond basic feeding until she was seven years old, and she has still not learned how to speak (Sinicki, 2016). Oxana Malaya is a Ukrainian girl that was found living with wild dogs, which she had been living with since age three. At first she did not seem to have the ability to learn language, but she was able to overcome the difficulties, which may suggest she learned some language before age three when she was thought to be living with her parents (Sinicki, 2016).

One of the most tragic cases was Genie, who had been neglected and abused for the first twelve years of her life. Psychologists took an interest in her when she was found, and presented the researchers with a unique opportunity to test the critical period hypothesis (Genie, 2016). In Genie’s case, she had already reached the age of puberty so if she were able to learn language it would prove the critical period hypothesis wrong (Genie, 2016). Genie was able to add more words to her vocabulary, but she could not speak in grammatically correct sentences or use language in any meaningful way (Genie, 2016). While Genie did miss the critical period, she was also severely neglected and abused for many years, which could have resulted in cognitive damage (Genie, 2016). Genie’s inability to learn language does support the critical period hypothesis, but because of the other circumstances surrounding her life before puberty there may be other contributing factors.

Although there are very unfortunate circumstances surrounding the early lives of these feral children, the difficulties each of them have had acquiring language does support the critical period hypothesis. This theory of language acquisition does not necessarily prove or disprove either the behaviorist or nativist theories, but it does add another layer when studying how we learn and develop language as children. Whether we learn through imitation and reinforcement or have it wired in our brains at birth, if we are not exposed to language before the critical age we are unlikely to acquire the use of language.



Coronado, N. (2013, November 19). The critical period hypothesis on language acquisition studied through feral children. Retrieved from

Genie: The story of the wild child. (2016, April 19). Retrieved from

Sinicki, A. (2016). Modern cases of feral children. Retrieved from



6 thoughts on “The Critical Period for Language Acquisition and Feral Children

  1. mcl5365

    It is heartbreaking to hear of cases of feral children who most of the time endure unimaginable acts of neglect and abuse. In your blog post you mentioned one case in which a young girl, not found until age 12, experienced severe abuse and questioned if the abuse could have resulted in cognitive damage and acted as a hinderance to language acquisition. I would be very curious to see the research that has been done as to the role abuse and neglect play in terms of cognitive damage and language acquisition. It seems impossible to unravel the effects of neglect and abuse because not exposing a child to language for a number of years would be considered both neglect and abuse. There are very interesting topics surrounding language acquisition. I did read a few articles that pointed out what you did in terms of the language acquisition window, but none discuss the effects of abuse suffered later in life. If a child receives normal care at the beginning of life and does acquire language, but then suffers abuse later in childhood at say age 10, what would the effects be? I know that I have heard stories of children refusing to talk or even regressing in language skills, even reverting back to bedwetting, but do they really lose the use of language? Again, the research web appears to become very tangled when instances of abuse enter into play.

  2. Jhoselyn Mendez

    First, I just want to say that I really enjoyed your blog post. The topic of feral children and the critical period are very interesting. Genie’s case is great example of the critical period hypothesis, but it is important to note that her case can be use for and against this hypothesis. Even though Genie failed to develop speech, she was able to comprehend basic language after many years of professional help. Another great example of the critical period is that of deaf children. Many deaf children are not exposed to language until later in life. For example, some deaf children only learn sign language at first and are not exposed to spoken language until later in life. There are also instances where the situation is reversed and they are not exposed to sign language (ASL) until later in life. Research has shown that for these individuals late acquisition of ASL does not affect some aspects of language processing but it does effect learning more grammatical structures of ASL. Just like in Genie’s case it seems that the more complex components of language are more difficult to master once the critical period has passed.

    Andrews, J. F., Leigh, I., & Weiner, M. T. (2004). Deaf people: Evolving perspectives from psychology, education and sociology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

  3. mrm5982

    I found this blog post to be very knowledgeable and intriguing. I also remember reading about a so called wild child in a psychology course I took a few years back, however this article had me thinking about a personal experience I wish to share. As most of the students in this course are psychology majors, I am sure you have all heard of the Penn Hurst institution, and am aware of some of the atrocities, as well as some of the kind stories of compassion that happened there throughout history. If you have are unfamiliar with this institution this site I found has a very brief history of pennhurst asylum, originally called the eastern Pennsylvania institution for the feeble-minded and epileptic.
    Now that I have introduced Penn Hurst I would like to relate back to the original blog post about how those who were neglected at a young age have limited vocabulary, or are unable to speak at all. I have had the honor of working with numerous survivors from this institution and others over the past five years. Several individuals who came from these “schools” were not cuddled, or played with as children they were left in their cribs all day. This was not always due to purposeful neglect but instead due to the overwhelming number of cases, and the small number of staff the facility had to offer. Relating back to B.F skinner and behaviorism these babies were not stimulated, and had no positive reinforcement to learn language. Several of the individuals I cared for were nonverbal, but could make grunting, or whining noises like what you might relate to an infant who is learning to explore and develop in a nourished environment. These children from the institutions who were societies outcasts never acquired language skills because they were not stimulated before their critical age. The people who came from the institutions were intelligent and did communicate in their own ways by drawing pictures of what they would like, by pointing, or even by showing how thankful they are with hugs, smiles, and laughter. I believe that if they were given the opportunity from a young age to participate in society that they might have turned out similar to you and I and speak in full sentences, unfortunately due to the eugenics movement this was never accomplished.

  4. Sabrina Williams

    Your insight on critical periods of language and the supporting doctrine you presented was very interesting to read. It’s intriguing to understand the concept of learning a language in general. I have read about how it is fundamental to teach your child a second language during the time that you teaching them their first language. It is also amazing how resilient children can be even after horrific events. Just to speak on the topic of feral children, I also read an article ( about legendary stories involving feral children also known as “wild child”. After reading that article it I looked into the span of time in which these cases were found. Interesting enough I found an article on-line written by the Huffington post about these cases found ranging between 1845 – 2008, in Cambodia to Russia to the United States. These stories although interesting, disturbing and amazing. I had heard about this topic many years ago but I’m glad that you shed more light on this subject because it was a great read.


    Welcome to the jungle-Frank, Priscilla, 30-September 2015,

  5. Michael David Robinson

    The critical period for initial, first language acquisition may be even earlier than thought. According to Mehler et al. (1988), children actually show a preference for learning the language that they were exposed to in utero. Apparently, sound can actually carry into the body enough that when the mother talks or listens to music, the developing fetus brain can pick up on some of the grammar. Furthermore, there are different critical periods for different aspects of language capabilities. For example, grammar have one critical period, while syntax has another critical period. According to Friedmann and Rusou (2015), the critical period for syntax is actually within the first year. “We find that the acquisition of syntax in a first language has a critical period that ends during the first year of life, and children who missed this window of opportunity later show severe syntactic impairments” (Friedmann & Rusou, 2015, p. 27). Interestingly, it turns out that language input during this time is more important than language use (Friedmann & Rusou, 2015). Merely being exposed to the language is what is necessary to allow the innate neural mechanisms that allow for language acquisition to develop properly (Friedmann & Rusou, 2015). Another very interesting finding is that the mechanism by which language exposure takes place does not seem to matter. Deaf children who receive no auditory input, but are taught sign language, demonstrate normal language development, while deaf children who receive no auditory input and do not learn sign language show the same deficits that non-deaf children who are not exposed to language do (Friedmann & Rusou, 2015). “In deaf children born to deaf families, the language input is provided since birth as sign language. Studies show that deaf or hearing children who acquire sign language from their deaf parents experience normal language development” (Friedmann & Rusou, 2015, p. 29). This would seem to indicate that language processing is distinct from hearing, and can process information received through other routes.


    Friedmann, N. & Rusou, D. (2015). Critical period for first language: the crucial role of language input during the first year of life. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 35(2015), 27-34. doi:

    Mehler, J., Jusczyk, G., Lambertz, N., Halsted, J., Bertoncini, J., & Amiel-Tison, C. (1988). A precursor of language acquisition in young infants. Cognition, 29(1988), 143-178

  6. abw5131

    This blog post was particularly intriguing for me to read because my last blog post was also about language and how it’s difficult to learn after a period of time. It makes more sense to me why, now after reading this post because I wrote about how it’s pretty difficult for me to master learning Spanish as a second language. I also find it fascinating that some of these children were able to overcome the neglect they had and were able to learn language. Albeit not completely but they learned some things. It makes me wonder that as the United States grows more diverse and has more languages being spoken if there would be a push to teach children more second or third languages in elementary and middle schools to help diversify us. While I was in elementary school I was taught some Spanish as part of my class regimen and I believe it gave me a bit more of an edge when it came to taking Spanish in both high school and college. Teaching other languages earlier on could become a vital tool for setting children up for success.
    Very interesting post!

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