Earlier today, in our Psycholinguistics class with Matthew, we talked about the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH).
Wilder Penfield (1959), one of the main proponents of this hypothesis stated that, a person goes through a “critical period” in the early developmental stages wherein language learning and acquisition of a first language happen very fast. Generally bracketed from 4 to 8 years old, this critical period is as important as the other developmental phases;that neglect of exposure to a target language during these years will deprive the individual to learn a first language further.
It should be noted, however, that CPH is wildly controversial. In the years of linguistic and developmental psychology researches, there have been various arguments that language learning can still occur and develop in the latter years.
On the other hand, there had been cases in the modern world that still proves the CPH worthy of our attention.
At first, I thought that the lecture this morning was going to be just one of those usual talks on theories and principles.
But all changed when Matthew showed us a video of Genie, a feral child who was discovered in her room, strapped in a potty chair for the first 13 years of her life. It was later learned that Genie was a victim of physical and mental abuse since infant hood, by her father who was a retired military officer (reference needed). She was locked in her room for thirteen years with the most minimal exposure to human interaction and relationship. Evidence indicates that her father would hit her with stick whenever Genie attempts to speak or make a sound. The patriarch also forbidden other family members to reach out to Genie, denying the child to interaction and language exposure.
When her mother decided to leave her father, she took Genie with her to seek help in a welfare office somewhere in California. Genie was immediately evaluated and projected to be 6 or 7 years old by the social workers. However, when they learned that she was 13, they immediately called social services for further support.
Why? When Genie was discovered by the outside world, she was almost entirely mute. The only words she can utter were negatives such as don’t, cannot, stop it and no more. Also, she had this strange rabbit-walk, brought about by the months and years being tied to a potty chair for the last thirteen years.
Considered as the most extreme case of human isolation in the study of human psychology in America, to this day, Genie is still considered a living example that CPH , is still something we should think of whenever we delve into the discussion of learning a first language.
If you’d like to know more about Genie, here’s a video of the documentary film they made of her in the 70’s, the same excerpt that Matthew showed us this morning. This, however, is just the first of the many parts in YouTube.
It immediately touched our hearts and temporarily silenced the class.
You can further explore the continuations here.
Though Genie’s case is something academicians will go crazy about, I on the other hand, think that she’s more than that.
Hers is one sad thing. Every child is entitled to love, attention and care. Even without awareness of such theories like the CPH, we deliberately educate our young and nurture them accordingly.
It’s unbelievable that such things can happen in a, supposedly, modern world