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Genie: The Wild Child Of L.A.

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The case of he feral child Genie gives us insight into how humans acquire language.

The case of he feral child Genie gives us insight into how humans acquire language.

Sure there are many “wild” children living in Los Angeles, but usually we use the term to describe those child actors who are featured in the tabloids as hopping from nightclub to nightclub. But, in the early 1970’s, a completely different “Wild Child” was discovered. Genie (not her real name) was a victim of abuse on a scale that the suburbs of Los Angeles had never seen. Genie had been locked in her room since toddlerhood, and rarely was, if ever, spoken to. She was feed baby food and oatmeal, tied to a “potty chair”, and left to her own devices for close to 13 years. Despite being close to the onset of puberty, Genie was extremely skinny and short; she walked funny and made grunting and growling sounds. She was, at least in actions, closer to an animal than a human. But one morning in the fall of 1970, a social worker arrived at her house and Genie was released from her bottle, thrusting her into one of the hottest contested psychological arguments of the time.

How do toddlers acquire language? Skinner said reinforcement, Chomsky said it's inborn.

How do toddlers acquire language? Skinner said reinforcement, Chomsky said it's inborn.

The Critical Period Of Language

How humans acquire language was a hotly contested subject in the late 1960’s. Two giants in the field of psychology were spearheading he debate. B.F. Skinner, a Havard psychologist, famous for his work with pigeons and rats, coined the term operant conditioning. Operant condition is the belief that we learn through the consequences of our actions. In other words, if we are reinforced in some way for a behavior, then it’ll continue. A slot machine is the perfect example. It might not be logical to gamble, but we win just enough to keep us going.

Skinner believed that language was also acquired in this way. Toddlers are constantly experimenting with sounds and eventually they will “say” something that resembles a word. For example, a child may say something that sounds like “mamma”. If heard by an adult, particularly the mother, they literally freak out. It generally goes something like this: “Oh my baby, you said mamma, I love you, I love you, let me give you a hug”. Because a child’s worldview at this age is completely based around the sensory experience, this is a very rewarding consequence for them. The attention and affection they receive is so rewarding that they will be likely to repeat that word often. Skinner believed this is how we learn to talk.

Noam Chomsky, a philosopher and linguist, had an entirely different theory. He believed that children learned language too fast for it to be a product of operant conditioning. His theory was that the development of language was hardwired into our brain. If exposed to a language (or multiple languages), a fully functional human brain will develop the brain cells that make a young child coherently speak. Others expanded on this theory and proposed that the exposure to language has to be prior to puberty or a child will never learn to speak at all. This is called the critical period hypothesis of language.

Victor of Aveyron, although being studied close to 200 years earlier, was a strikingly similar case.

Victor of Aveyron, although being studied close to 200 years earlier, was a strikingly similar case.

The Forbidden Experiment

But there was one question they could not solve. How can you ever, in a laboratory setting, figure out who’s right? It would be unethical to deprive a child of language just for the sake of science. Then Genie appeared. Here was a girl, living a stone’s throw away from UCLA, who was accidentally involved in a real life "forbidden experiment". Psychologists and doctors scrambled to study Genie. They tried their best to balance their desires to learn more about language and to help her heal from the tremendous physical and emotion wounds that had scarred her. Genie's life was about to change.

Believe it or not, this was not the first time the forbidden experiment was ever conducted. In 1800, a boy of an unknown age wandered out of the wood in Averyron, France. It was generally accepted that he, like Genie, was close to puberty. He was very primitive in his actions; acting more like a wolf than a boy. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, a young doctor, took on the Victor case. One of his goals was to teach Victor to speak. Victor’s results, like Genie’s after him, give clout to the critical period hypothesis.

Some Bonobo's have been taught sign language that equals or betters Genie's ability.

Some Bonobo's have been taught sign language that equals or betters Genie's ability.

The Results

Victor never learned to “talk”, not vocally or with the sign language Itard tried to teach him. The boy could understand some spoke language, particularly sentences that were action oriented, but never mastered vocal or sign language grammar rules of any kind. Victor’s language development came to a screeching halt. Itard eventually abandoned the case and Victor went into the foster care system. He died at the approximate age of 40 in Paris at the home of his caregiver. Victor never learned to speak.

Genie, on the other hand, started out strong. Although her vocal muscles were not developed enough to speak clearly, Genie mastered a few hundred words and strung them together, much like a toddler, into meaningful two-word phrases. Then, like Victor before her, her progress just stopped. Genie could not move past the two-word stage. She struggled with tense, pronouns, conjunctions, and other basic grammar rules such as semantic meaning and syntax (how words are ordered in a sentence). Frankly speaking, by the time Genie was in her mid-teens, was still struggling to speak more than the average 3 year old child or, quite honestly, some sign-language trained Bonobo apes.

Genie's case gives us some of the best evidence to support the critical period hypothesis. It apears that without early exposure, humans will struggle to acquire language at a high level.

What Happened To Genie?

Genie’s story is not a happy one. Despite the best efforts of the psychologists and doctors, Genie’s care came under question by the government program that was funding the research. Doctors and caregivers began fighting over her and Genie ended up in the middle of both intellectual and ethical battles. To make things worse, Genie’s mother, who was excused of all charges due to her own claims of abuse (the father committed suicide after Genie was discovered), sued to get her daughter back and won.

Soon after moving back in with her mother, Genie was sent back into the foster care system. Her mom, who was partially blind, claimed that she did not have the physical stamina to keep up with the demands of childrearing. In the various foster homes Genie was placed, she was subjected to more mental and physical abuse. On one such occasion, she was beaten for vomiting. Genie has hardly opened her mouth and uttered a single word since.

Genie currently lives in an adult care facility. She is thought to be 56 years old.

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alma responts on May 04, 2017:

In my opinion, if she had remained in one home and not moved to 7 homes and had been taught much like a baby, I think that by her twenties, she would have probably inproved her lanunguage skills. Of course she spoke at a 3 year old level, she was 13 when found and had never spoken or had been taught anything, so if in a couple of years she progressed to 3, it is a big accomplishment.. Why couldn't one of her so called therapists whom said loved so much have taken her inn??? I speak as a foster parent...

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on August 23, 2013:

Very, very fascinating; fascinating story and fascinating how we learn language.

Marie Hurt from New Orleans, LA on April 14, 2013:

This is an interesting case study. So sad for Genie that she was never really given much of a chance in life. I am not sure if we have really learned anything yet as a society. More people need to hear this story.

Jayme Kinsey from Oklahoma on April 14, 2013:

Fascinating and sad hub. I can't help but think that these children might have done better had they had a caregiver devoted to actually helping them learn and adapt, rather than ones that wanted to use them as experiments. No wonder they couldn't progress. I imagine the pressure was intense and overwhelming after a childhood of neglect and captivity. I hope the human race does better should another case present itself. Great article, I really enjoyed reading! Voting and sharing!

Dianna Mendez on February 04, 2013:

What a fascinating share on this subject. Sadly, Genie suffered without any solutions. I am touched by this and only hope we can learn from this story.

Tamarajo on February 04, 2013:

fascinating article. I had never heard of Genie. Will be watching the video later.

Laura Brown from Barrie, Ontario, Canada on February 03, 2013:

I remember reading about feral children and language learning in high school. I think we talked about "Genie" as a case study. How cruel to have used her that way then left her to continue suffering rather than trying to help her - or at least not continue to be abused.

Vickiw on February 03, 2013:

Fascinating story, one that I remember, but interesting to know where poor Genie is. Your research is good too. It is so sad that some children have such hard lives, almost always brought about by their early childhood

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