Posted by: Tobias | January 27, 2009

Language acquisition

In November of 1970, a thirteen-year-old girl arrived, accompanied by her mother, at a California family aid office. The girl, who is known publicly by the name “Genie,” walked hunched with her hands raised in front of her like paws. According to Susan Curtiss, author of Genie: a Psycholinguistic Study of a Modern-Day Wild Child, she weighed only 59 pounds and spat incessantly. In addition to her decrepit physical appearance and bizarre social habits, Genie seemed incapable of producing normal language – only ever uttering a few isolated words.

For the ten years leading up to that day in November, Genie had been confined to a single room – strapped, by day, to a “potty chair,” and, by night, to the inside of a sleeping bag. During that time, Genie had very limited human contact, and – of particular interest to the psychologists who studied her for the eight years to follow – almost no exposure to language. This fact – the occasion of Genie’s tragic abuse – gave scientists the opportunity investigate a question that could never have been probed through direct experimentation: does one lose the ability to acquire a first language?

Cases like Genie’s suggest that the answer is yes. While children who were deprived of linguistic stimuli up until age six have gone on to possess normal language, others, like Genie, whose deprivation continued past this point, have not had the same success. Genie did learn the meanings of many words, but she was never able to piece them together into sentences with normal syntax. Instead, she formed statements like “Applesauce buy store” and “I like elephant eat peanut.” Although controversies remain regarding Genie’s case (for instance, allegations of inconsistency in the documentation of Genie’s progress), the apparent linguistic limitations of so-called “feral children” offer strong evidence for a “critical period” after which it is impossible to acquire normal language.

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