Feral children puzzle researchers, students


Courtesy of Business Insider

The story of feral children is not a new one. From fictional characters such as Tarzan to real life cases such as Genie, their language development has fascinated researchers.

Maddox Fornataro, Staff Writer

Everyone is familiar with the classic story of Mowgli from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book who was raised by jungle animals; however, many people are unaware that the inspiration behind this is the feral child Dina Sanichar who was raised by wolves until he was found at age 6 by hunters. But unfortunately, Sanichar is not the only case. These severely neglected kids, also known as “feral children,” have bewildered researchers and audiences for decades.

Aside from behavioral issues, when children are neglected, they suffer from severe communication skills. In such cases, feral children learn to say the words, however, it is not language because language consists of sentence structure and grammar rules. A feral child may never learn the structure of language.  

In 1970, 13-year-old Genie Wiley was discovered after a social worker visited their home and found the young girl locked in a small room and tied to a potty chair. Both of Genie’s parents were charged with abuse, though her father committed suicide the day before he was due in court.

After her parent’s detainment, a team of psychologists called the “Genie Team” attempted to rehabilitate the girl. One of the team members was Susan Curtiss, a then student at the University of California Los Angeles. Curtiss was focused on studying Genie’s linguistic development and would eventually go on to complete her doctoral thesis on Genie’s acquisition of language.

During her studies, Curtiss found that Genie was able to use words, but not in a complex and meaningful way.

“Language and thought are distinct from each other,” said Curtiss in an article by The Guardian.  “For many of us, our thoughts are verbally encoded. For Genie, her thoughts were virtually never verbally encoded, but there are many ways to think.”

Linguists ultimately concluded that because Genie had not learned a first language during the critical period, which occurs from birth to age seven, she was unable to fully acquire a language. 

“I think that there should be more in place to protect feral children,” said junior and AICE A Level Psychology student Ava Klauza. “There should be extra care to place them with families that will love and support them, even though they know the child will never learn language. They should also be put in a hospital if necessary to further care for them and provide necessary care.”

Behavioral issues make feral children hard to study from a linguistic perspective. This means that it is difficult to understand why children, who have undergone severe abuse, are unable to grasp the language due to their age being past this critical period or due to their trauma. Genie had learned the words and developed sentences, enjoying interaction, however that development was not permanent. 

Today, due to her severe behavioral issues, Genie lives in an adult foster care home in California.

Another case involves Danielle Crockett, also referred to as the “girl in the window,” in Plant City, Florida, 30 minutes outside of Tampa. This is the story of a 7-year-old girl named Danielle who, since her birth, suffered horrific conditions of abuse and neglect. When the officer found Danielle in 2005, she was wearing a diaper and weighed less than 80 pounds at 6-years-old. The rooms in the house were filled with urine, feces, cockroaches, and Dani was found inside a dark room the size of a closet wearing a swollen diaper and had feces dribbling down her legs. She was found malnourished and couldn’t say a single word. When the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) conducted a wellness check, they called the police and the police removed the child. After a few tests, the department labeled her as having “psychological deprivation, failure to thrive, medical and physical neglect and developmental delays” whereas Kathleen Armstrong, a pediatric school psychologist at the University of South Florida, diagnosed Dani with “environmental autism.”  

“It’s hard to protect these type of children because through the years of them being locked down, in bad conditions, and in bad homes, being cared by poor parents, who do nothing but poorly treat these type of children up to a point that they can no longer develop, especially trying to develop their language and social skills,” noted junior Mateo Lopez, after watching a documentary in AICE Language. 

Seven months after being removed from her home, Dani learned a vocabulary of around 1,500 to 2,000 words and acquired limited linguistic abilities. Unfortunately, these abilities did not last long. 

The question for linguists was whether children can learn past the critical learning period or not. Were these children’s circumstances impacted by trauma? 

Experts agree that the short answer is no. Children acquire language through interaction, but when children are brutally neglected, there is no interaction to shape their learning foundation. Ages 0-7 are the best times for children to learn a language. Beyond that age, children continue to acquire language, but without a foundation created in the development years,  there is no way for them to learn the entire lexis of the language fluently. Researchers have found that after these ages, a child who has never learned to speak will likely be unable to fully grasp a functional language. 

As humans grow older and learn to communicate, through interaction, the brain increases in size. In the case of a feral child, the brain does not grow past the size it was when this neglect occurred. As the individual gets older, their brain becomes “hard wired” and begins to recognize patterns and appropriate responses. There are critical periods for developing coherent emotional responses and the ability for complex sensory information, and everything people learn throughout continuing development stages in your life. 

In Genie Wiley’s case, the tasks she had been performing in order to test her language abilities were all right-brained tasks; she had failed at the left-brained tasks. Genie only had been using the right-side of her brain to process the information given to her and she had not used her left brain for language communication at all. Her left brain was functionally dead. Genie’s mother ultimately ended up suing the doctors and researchers of the children’s hospital. She had claimed that they were doing outrageous and excessive testing. Eventually as a result of the complaint filed, Genie’s mother regained custody of her daughter.  

As of 2017, Danielle was adopted by the Lierow family and was living in Tennessee.

To learn more, please visit The Development of Language in Genie: a Case of Language

Acquisition beyond the “Critical Period”