Feral Children
Can a teenager acquire language? What level of
intelligence can he or she attain if apart from the
society ?
( “L’enfant Sauvage” F. Truffaut).
What conditions are essential for language
What would we be like if the influence of our
current society had not been present?
What aspects of human nature are genetic, and
what aspects are learned?
The Forbidden Experiment
 The idea : bringing up a child in isolation, to see what he or she
can acquire in the way of language.
Examples :
Psammetichus I (an Egyptian king who, in the 7th century B.C.E)
caused two children to be raised by deaf-mutes. He wanted to
see what language will emerge first. The children first said
“bekos”, the Phrygian word for bread. So, he concluded Phrygian
was the original language of the humanity.
Frederick II
In 1211, Frederick II, Emperor of Germany, in an attempt to
discover the natural "language of God," raised dozens of
children in silence. God's preferred language never emerged; the
children never spoke any language and all ultimately died in
childhood (van Cleve, 1972).
Akbar le Grand (1542 – 1605)
In Persian Myth, it is said that Akbar the Great once built a
palace which he filled with new-born children, attended only by
dumb attendants, in order to learn whether language is innate or
acquired. This palace became known as the Gang Mahal, or Dumb
For language to develop, there are two
necessary requirements : (1) a human brain and
(2) sufficient exposure to language during the
childhood. ( Curtiss, 1977).
 About 100 feral children have been found since
the fourteen century.
 Feral children, also known as wild children or wolf
children, are children who've grown up unaware of
human behaviour and unexposed to language.
Different kinds of feral children
Isolated children : children who lived on
their own.
Confined Children
= denied normal social interaction with
other people
Children raised by animals : wolves,
dogs, apes.
Victor d’Aveyron
 Victor has been found in
the woods near Saint
Sernin sur Rance, in
southern France, at the
end of the 18th century.
 Aged about 12, he couldn't
speak at all.
He could only make some
( Itard, “The wild boy of
Aveyron”. 1962 ).
The movie “L’enfant
sauvage” (1970), The
Wild Child, has been
directed by Francois
The story is based
on the journal of the
memoirs of a French
physician, Jean
He wanted to teach
him how to speak and
to generally civilize
The evolution of Victor
 First, he was insensitive to any feelings, except joy and anger
ex : he never cried.
 His sensitivity to temperature wasn't the same as other
 Later, he was able to respond to some spoken commands.
 Victor only learned two terms, 'lait’ (milk), and 'oh Dieu’ (oh
my God).
 It appears that Victor used a gestural system and he was
able to comprehend language, even if he was practically unable
to produce it.
 Victor is a good example of how language is separated from
Genie, a modern-day Wild Child
Genie has had been discovered at the
age of 13. Until that time she was
private of any social interaction.
At the discovery :
- She didn’t know how to speak at all.
After the discovery, at the Hospital :
-Genie's mental and physical development
began almost immediately.
Characteristics of her speech
 Genie had a vocabulary of over one hundred words that she
 Her talking was limited to short high-pitched squeaks that were
hard to understand.
 Her syntactic skills were severely impaired. ( Biological Bases of
language development ).
ex : "Applesauce buy store".
 Her grammar was deficient in both production and comprehension.
- ‘telegraphic’ production of utterances
- cannot understand the distinction between the different
 Difference comprehension/production : she could understand
most of the basic structures of English, whereas she could not
produce them.
 The initiative of an interaction often came from another person
than Genie.
( S. Curtiss, 1977 ).
What happens in their brains ?
 the Right Hemisphere substitutes for the left
hemisphere in the control of language.
example : Dichotic tests, performed on Genie,
showed greater left-ear performance +
a problem understanding active/passive.
 Relates the “equipotentiality” hypothesis of Lenneberg.
 However, severe impairment that the feral children
encounter in the learning of language = so, the right
hemisphere is not entirely equivalent to the left
hemisphere in order to acquire language.
 Other groups : adults who have acquired language
thanks to their right hemisphere ; children in the
earliest stage of language acquisition and chimps
attempting to learn language. ( Curtiss, 1977) = not able
to learn the features of language as well.
 The effects of the childhood environment, favorable or
unfavorable, influence the processes of
 Chomsky : (1972) and others have proposed that humans
have an innate disposition to learn language ( LAD :
language acquisition device ). It exists an universal
structure (Universal Grammar) for all the languages.
 For the Chomskians, the environment has little
 Lenneberg : he explains that there is a “Critical Period”
for learning language between the age of two and that
ends after puberty (around the age of 12 years). If no
language is learned before then, it can never be learned
in a correct and functional way.
 In A theory of Neurolinguistic Development, John L
Locke suggests the term sensitive period rather than
critical period: a period which is optimal for "tuning"
that part of the brain best suited to the acquisition of
grammatical analysis. However, even after this period,
the ability of the brain to adapt and integrate new
things is not lost.
Second Language Acquisition
 Language acquisition is the process of learning a native or a
second language.
 People learning a second language pass through some of the same
stages, as children do.
 Children learn language better than adults.
 Adult learners progress faster than children.
 children have a number of powerful advantages: time, motivation,
peer pressure. ( D. Singleton)
 Adults lean heavily upon their first language.
For example, babbling helps and conditions the capabilities of
the vocal tract in the formation of sounds (A. Pycha).
 The ability to learn a second language does not diminish as one
gets older, but the younger the learner is, the easier it is
 For example, Isabelle acquire normal language ability, but only if
found before the onset of puberty. Her progress was dramatic:
in two years she covered the stages of learning that usually take
six years.
 It is difficult to draw conclusions from studies on feral children
since each case was very different. In any case, converting a feral
child into a relatively normal member of any human society is
usually impossible.
 Feral children help us to understand how the brain tries to adapt
to a severe depravation (use of right hemisphere) and how language
can be acquired after the Critical Period.
 Studies of feral children have led to new methods for teaching
children with learning disabilities, and indirectly to the
development of Braille and sign language.
 Humans might be biologically disposed towards language, but they
need the environment to make use of the structure of their brains.
 Children learn by listening to people talk and by repeating the
sounds. So, they acquire the words of their language without
formal instruction. Besides, children create their own linguistic
rules (overgeneralization).
 Without the society, the human is one of the most fragile animals.
He develops his identity and his reasoning thanks to the others,
since he learns by imitation, and thanks to his capacity to develop a
way of communicating.
Internet website :
S. Curtiss. 1977. Genie,
A Psycholinguistic Study
of a Modern-Day “Wild
 J-M-C. Itard,
translated by G. et M.
Humphrey. 1962. The
wild boy of Aveyron.