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Feral Children and the “Critical Period”

Fiction and folklore throughout the world generally has at least one story of a child living among and being raised by animals. The parents may be monkeys, dogs, and entire jungle family, etc., but the tale usually goes one of two ways. The child is brought up with a certain kind of “savage smarts” and uses these tricks when integrating into society, or the child becomes a dangerous and hideous monster. Real life examples of , children isolated from human for extended periods of time, have shown that neither of these two scenarios are accurate.

Real life examples of children either abandoned, locked away by their parents, or even stolen by animals are most certainly tragic and heartbreaking, but linguists have found a silver lining to these cases while studying the childrens’ capabilities at the time of their return to society and their process as they learn spoken language.

Attempts to teach feral children either spoken or sign language have met with very limited success. A number of children have returned from the wild mimicking and behaviors and show no interest in human language. Others have learned an extremely limited (< 30 words) and what could be generously referred to as the building blocks of grammar.

There are an infinite number of variables to take into account (age at which they were separated from human contact, time spent without speaking, mental stimulation while separated, etc.), but over the years some general hypotheses have been formed in regards to language acquisition and specifically, what is known as the .

The critical period hypothesis basically states that humans have a “window of ” to learn their first language. If that period passes without , practice, etc., then the opportunity is lost forever. The term refers to the period of the brain’s physical formation more so than the amount of social interaction at that age. There is no definitive conclusion on this debate, as real life examples from feral children have provided evidence for both camps.

Pictured above is Genie, a young girl who was denied social exposure for the first thirteen years of her life. Her father kept her strapped to a chair nearly twenty-four hours a day.