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 http://www.newsactivist.com/en/articles/knowledge-media/critical-period-hypothesis-language-acquisition-studied-through-feral
Genie: The story of the wild child. (2016, April 19). Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/genie.htm
Sinicki, A. (2016). Modern cases of feral children. Retrieved from http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/16139/1/Modern-Cases-of-Feral-Children.html