Genie and Language Acquisition
How children learn to speak and what
happens once they pass the critical
period without having done so.
Infants: 0-10 mos.
• Infants can distinguish sounds from birth, even
if those sounds are not part of their parents’
speech.
• By six months, babies begin to lump together
sounds into phonemes and separate them so
that their language keeps separate.
• By ten months, they cease to distinguish sounds
from different languages that are not present in
their own.
Physical Development for Speech
• During their first year, babies’ bodies change
so that they can speak.
• Their larynx comes up, which forces the baby
to breathe through the nose so that they can
drink and breathe at the same time.
• The larynx descends deep into the throat,
opening the pharynx that allows the tongue to
produce vowels.
Stages in Language Learning
• Between five and seven months, babies begin
to play with sounds and their vocal noises
begin to sound like consonants and vowels.
• Between seven and eight months they begin
to babble in real syllables.
• Around their first birthday, they begin to
understand and produce words.
Speed Learning
• At around eighteen months, a baby’s
vocabulary will jump to the rate of a newword-every-two-hours minimum that the child
will maintain through adolescence.
• Syntax also begins here with strings of two
word sentences.
• In 95% of the case, their words are in the
right order.
The Sesame Street Experiment
• A voiceover said, “OH LOOK!!! BIG BIRD IS
TICKLING COOKIE MONSTER! FIND BIG BIRD
TICKLING COOKIE MONSTER!!”
• The children must have understood the
meaning of the ordering of words because they
looked more at the screen that depicted the
sentence of the voiceover afterwards.
• Even before they can put two words together,
babies can comprehend a sentence using its
syntax.
Growing Up
• As babies get older, their speech gets more
complex, as soon, they find themselves able
to embed one constituent inside another.
• By the age of three, children use function
words in over 90% of the sentences that
require them.
Picking Up Language
• Without already knowing the language, it’s
difficult for a child to figure out what the
characters on television are talking about.
• When they listen to their parents, for example,
children are able to guess at what the parents
are saying, especially when they already know a
lot of the content words, based on their bodily
gestures.
• Much of what we learn is from conversation.
The Critical Period
• From the around the ages of 3 to 12.
• Language can be acquired until puberty, at
which the ability to learn language slows down
rapidly.
• Cases in which people make it to puberty
without having learned a language are rare, but
they all point to the same conclusion: they
never learn it as well as those who learned it as
children.
After the Critical Period
• Children who are found in the woods or in the
homes of psychotic parents after puberty
sometimes develop a vocabulary.
• However, they are permanently incapable of
mastering the full grammar of their language.
• Acquisition of a normal language is guaranteed
for children up to the age of six, is steadily
compromised from then until shortly after
puberty, and is extremely rare thereafter.
Saved During the Critical Period
• When children are discovered before they hit puberty,
however, they have a much better chance of learning
the full grammar.
• Isabelle was six and a half when she and her mute,
brain-damaged mother escaped from the her
grandfather’s house, where they were imprisoned. A
year and a half later she had learned 1500-2000
words and could produce complex grammatical
sentences such as:
– Do you go to Miss Mason’s school at the university?
– Why does the paste come out if one upsets the jar?
Genie
• Genie was discovered in 1970 at the age of
thirteen and seven months in a Los Angeles
suburb.
• She was confined up until that point by her
controlling father, who abused her regularly.
• Because she had not acquired language up
until that point, linguists used her to test the
critical period theory.
When Genie was Found
• When Genie was first found, they couldn’t tell at
first whether or not she had already acquired
language and simply wasn’t using it or if she
indeed had not acquired language.
• Because she did not respond to simple
commands but did respond to words that were
clearly out of the context of their environment,
it was determined that Genie truly had not yet
acquired language.
Initial Observations about Genie
• When she was first discovered, most of the
sounds that came out of her mouth were
voiceless.
• Normal people learn very early in life how to
speak and breathe at the same time. Genie,
however, never learned how to do so.
First Words
• Genie’s first basic ‘words’ were monosyllabic
consonant-vowel sequences.
• After five months, she began to use single
words spontaneously.
• Her early vocabulary was different from the
first words of regular children which are
typically nouns, plus particles like up and
down.
How she was taught to Speak
• The tests that were created to show Genie’s progress
in learning showed that Genie was acquiring language,
but not through imitation or prescribed rules.
• Genie learned plurals by learning to match the test
pictures with a string of the following sort: 1+N+S,
2+N+S, etc. So if Curtiss, one of the members of the
team who worked with her, said “three dishes,” Genie
would construct the string 3 dish S. In five lessons,
Genie had mastered the plural concept.
The Differences that Kept her Separate
• There are a few major differences between
her and regular children who acquire
language as babies:
– Her vocabulary was different and much larger than
that of children at the same stage of syntactic
development.
– The rate of her syntactic acquisition was much
slower than normal.
Results
• Genie eventually learned to produce
immature, pidgin like sentences such as:
–
–
–
–
Mike Paint.
Applesauce buy store.
I like elephant eat peanut.
Neal come happy; Neal not come sad.
Other Explanations for Lack of Speech
• Some hypothesize that the reason why people
like Genie never learn to speak successfully is
because they have emotional scars that
interfere somehow with their ability to learn.
However…
• Chelsea was born deaf in a remote town in
Northern California.
• At the age of 31, she was referred to a
neurologist who fitted her with hearing aids
that improved her hearing to near-normal
levels.
• She now knows two thousand words and has
become social and independent.
• She never learned proper syntax, though.
Results
• The paper on Genie was published as they were still
teaching Genie to talk, so it ends by saying that they
have yet to learn whether or not it is true that learning
to speak after the critical period is impossible.
• Time proved that the critical period theory was correct.
Eventually, Genie stopped improving and shortly
thereafter, her mother placed a restraining order on the
team that was working with her. She currently resides in
a home for mentally retarded adults.
Sources
• Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct. William
Morrow and Company, 1994.
• Curtiss, Susan. Fromkin, Victoria. Krashen,
Stephen. Rigler, David. Rigler, Marylyn. "The
Linguistic Development of Genie." Language:
Journal of the Linguistic Society of America
50, 3(September 1974): 528-54.
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