Genie: Insight about who she is as a human being

“Born the world in a potty chair
Bunny walk from lack of wear
She was beaten for making noise
Oh perfect teeth.”
Genie, a feral child, grew up in California with no human contact. She was a thirteen years old and unaware of human social behavior. Genie, like other victims of abuse, was raised in isolation, confined to her room like a caged animal. Her parents abandoned her and her father beat her when she made noises. Fortunately, a social service worker found her and sent her to the hospital. She was unable to walk, and could not speak. Her silence appeared to offer a rare opportunity to examine current theories of language and human development. This paper analyzes the biological and environmental conditions that contributed to Genie’s abnormal language development, illustrating the interaction of nature and nurture in Genie’s language.
The film Secrets of the wild child represents the debate among Genie’s psychologists and linguists about her language learning. They used Genie as an experiment case to test the theory of a “critical period.” Two experts in the field of language offer two different theories. Lenneberg disputes that humans have a biological critical period for language acquisition. Whereas, Chomsky believes that humans posses a language that it is innate.
Genie’s initial tests during her stay at the hospital showed that she could understand more than she was able to speak. Slowly, over two years, she began to understand more and more. She also finally picked up the difference between singular and plural nouns, and negative and positive sentence distinction. However, it is unclear whether Genie’s test results were showing a “critical period” because the test had to be tailored to her situation. It is also unclear which area of language development was due to her exposure to extreme trauma.
Obviously, Genie’s language was improving during her therapy sessions. Although she has acquired a large and varied vocabulary and was beginning to talk, she was unable to use correct grammar. Curtiss, who worked with Genie’s language over six years, “was struck with how different the words that she knew were from the vocabulary words that young children would know when they are acquiring a first language.” (Secrets of the wild child)
Consequently, Genie’s psychologists and linguistics suggested examining Genie’s neurobiological development. Before they started, many questions were raised by them, such as, whether if Genie was mentally retarded from birth or how her brain has been affected when she was isolated. Therefore, this study attempted to identify which parts of Genie’s brain are active in adults when introduced with different stimuli of language by “recording the electrical or magnetic activity of the brain.” Thus, Genie’s psychologists and linguists concluded that Genie is only using the right hemisphere of her brain. She was especially skilled and quick at tasks that relate closely to the right brain. When testing her left brain ability, she failed at most of these tasks. Naturally, she never learned to speak more than a few words and was unable to develop her grammar tasks.
Genie faced different risks to her language development not only because of her mental and physical disabilities, but also because of the social environment in which she lived in. In addition, she lacked the basic social skills that are normally learned in the process of “sociocultural opportunities” or socialization. For example, she may lack interest in the human activity around her. In other words, Genie’s environment, particularly being isolated and abused, forces her to be unable to acquire the language completely. However, Genie’s psychologists and linguists believed that it is important to help Genie to be connected to other humans so she might learn to speak. As result, Curtiss stated that “Genie used her limited language to remember her past, such as; father hit arm and Genie cry.” (Secrets of the wild child) Nevertheless, examining the evidence of Genie’s life or other cases of severe neglect on the ability of children to learn language and socialize, it should come as no surprise that the lack of effective environment has a profound impact on the developing brain.
Feral children such as Genie are fused without controversy on of the big urging points over nature versus nurture. The question becomes, how much of language and ability is innate in humans and how much is taught by society? For the most part, it seems that feral children give weight to the nurture side of the argument. However, this is another aspect to the debate, which is kind of a blending of the two sides. Some people believe that there is a “critical period” during which the developing child can learn a language and how to experience human emotions, but if that period passes without any human examples as a reinforcement (nurture), the period passes and may never be regained.
In general, there is a “critical period” during childhood in which we acquire the basic fundamental of language, as well as many other skills. We are thinking to ourselves today that it just seems harder and harder for us to acquire vocabulary or read more than while we were younger, it would help more than if we did now. It also seems like it is harder for adults as Genie to learn how to play an instrument than for a younger child, also. While the tasks managed by the right hemisphere were easier for Genie, she still could not learn to speak and use the grammar and we think she gives evidence to support the critical theory hypothesis. Surely, the abuse and neglect could have played into it; maybe she was physically hurt in a way that impaired her speech, the level of abuse contributed to her lack of vocabulary, but we still think that we do acquire the fundamentals of many processes during our youth.
Naturally, Genie was hardly growing up in abusive environment that explains her lack of language acquisition. Thus, her difficulties in later life may be due to the environment causes rather than being specifically due to a lack of exposure to language. Perhaps, if Genie can learn how to talk then this would be evidence to support the argument that social circumstances are important to language acquisition. If she can not learn to talk then the biological circumstances such as her being mentally retarded will stand behind her lack of language development.


About BentRamallah

Writing is part of my resistance, Palestinian-Jordanian, working in humanitarian aid, refugee, social policy and protection. I love to cook, dance, hike, teach and practice yoga, and rescue animals.
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