Raised by wolves

Our first words are typically things like mummy or daddy; however they are often random too. Language develops throughout childhood, it progresses from babbling noises to sentences, into complex sentences containing meaning and purpose (Gleitman, Gross, & Reisberg, 2011). The environment around us will have heavy influence on language development. So what happens to those brought up in a world so radical compared to our own? By analysis and examination of these cases, we can gain an understanding of how early language develops and how important it is.

There have been many accounts reported of children raised by animals, they vary from wolves, bears, dogs and even monkeys (Newton, 2004).  In 1902 there was the case of two girls, Kamala and Amala. They were found by Indian villagers in a wolf den along with two wolf cubs and the wolf mother. They were then raised in an orphanage by a reverend and his wife (Steeves, 2006). The children were very young, Kamala was just eight and Amala was eighteen months. The reason for them being there was never discovered and no one knew why the wolf mother adopted them. They shared many characteristics with the wolves. From travelling on all fours, hard callus had developed on their hands and knees, their teeth were sharp, they sniffed out their food with their nostrils, ate raw meat and drank by lowering their heads to their plates, they did not follow children but cats and dogs instead, they also slept curled up on the floor together and often howled. Unfortunately Amala died shortly after one year and Kamala lived until she was eighteen (Brown, 1958, cited in Gleitman, Gross, & Reisberg, 2011). Kamala learned to speak few words, wear clothing and walk standing, this however took time. It is difficult to interpret this case because we know little about Kamala.

There have been other cases where language development has been obstructed due to children in isolation. In these cases the child has parents, but they have unfortunately been disconnected from the world and all contact. A young girl named Isabelle (code name for protection) was raised by cruel parents. She was only given what was necessary to survive, she had no contact, affection, love or relationships. Her mother was deaf and emotionally indifferent. At six she was discovered and taken to a normal environment, she had no language skills and her cognitive development was below that of a two year old.  However this changed, Brown (1958) and Davis (1947) found within a year she could talk, she went to a normal school and her intelligence improved to a higher standard (Gleitman, Gross, & Reisberg, 2011). At seven years she was at the same level as other children her age. Isabelle was lucky compared to other unfortunate children. There have been cases where children have never successfully rehabilitated. In California a girl named Genie was discovered at fourteen years old. She had also been isolated but often beaten by her father. The majority of her life with her father was spent tied to a chair, she was barked at and called a dog by him. Genie was taken to psychologists and linguistics (Curtiss, 1977), after years of teaching she has never appeared to have constructed a real grasp of language (Gleitman, Gross, & Reisberg, 2011).

These cases highlight how important experience with the environment and other humans is on language development. Would it be possible to ever speak a word without any human contact?

Gleitman, H., Gross, J., & Reisberg, D. (2011). Psychology. W.W. Nortan, New York, London, 404-407.

Benzaquén, A.S. (2006). Encounters with wild children: temptation and disappointment in the study of human nature. McGill-Queen’s Press.

Newton, M. (2004). Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children. Picador.

Steeves, H.P. (2006). The things themselves: phenomenology and the return to everyday. Philosophy, SUNY Press. 19-20.


6 thoughts on “Raised by wolves

  1. Cases such as this reinforce the idea that language is learnt. Chomsky (1965) however believed that genetics also play a part in language development. His theory of language acquisition claimed that we are all born with an innate predisposition to learn a language. This language acquisition device allows us to learn a language at ease at childhood. The particular language we learn and the fluency we have of that language however is down to the environment. This explains the feral children, as with no environmental language stimulus to trigger their predisposition, the children did not initially learn a language.

    Although Genie did not ever have a full grasp of language, she did learn the basics. This shows that although she could not gain complete fluency, her genetic predisposition to learn a language allowed her to develop some (although minimal) skills in that area.

    An interesting example of the irrepressible, innate nature of language is sign language. There is evidence that indicates sign languages are independent languages of their own, as they are created independently by communities of deaf individuals (Senghas, 1995). This shows that the strength of our ability to learn a language can surpass barriers such as the inability to use sound. This unique gift humans have is what separates us from other animals, and is the basis of everything we do.

  2. The complexity of our communication with those of our own species sets us apart from other animals. The question is not would we be able to speak with no other human contact but would there be any need to speak without human contact? The case of Isabelle highlights that human beings require love and contact as she flourished once freed from her restricted environment. However,Luria and Yudovich (1971) proposed that language is not so much for communication with one another, but rather a means by which, both individually and cooperatively, we can make sense of the world around us. Language is a platform on which we can represent our environment as it is presented to us. Piaget and Bruner (as cited in Luria & Yudovich) said that in infancy we represent the world through perception and movement. In the case of Kamala and Amala they have been unable to progress past this stage, yet, when in contact with other humans we become more sophisticated, through the use of language, in our ability to interpret the world. If we apply the theory of Luria and Yudovich to most animals, in this case wolves, their world can be sufficiently interpreted through smell, touch and howling.

  3. This blog massively arises the debate nature vs nurture, whether behaviour is learned or biological.The case of Genie that you discussed supports that behaviour and language is learnt through the environment because she never developed the full ability to speak and behaviour in a socially acceptable way therfore the ability is learnt and not already in existence.This stresses the importance of children learning languages and potentially second languages as early as possible.However social class appears to influence this as only 43% of low income children visit the library once month whereas 90% of a standard income families child visits a library once month therefore improving their language and reading skills therefore supporting language is learnt.(Baker,Serpell and Sonneshein 1995).

    However language and behaviour debatably is innate but i believe its innate but your environment determines wether it is learnt – diatheis stress model.Gardner and Gardner(1967) attempted to treat a chimpanzee(Washoe) how to communicate through sign language(as chimpanzees do not have the physiological capability due to a lack of vocal cords).Washoe by the end of the experiment could sign 30 different words even combing new words for the names of objects she did not know e.g for swan she signed water bird demonstrating that behaviour and language can be learnt through the environment however only to an extent as she could not sign full sentences.

    The socialisation you experience as a child drastically shapes your personality and consequently your behaviour and language learnt consequently if a childs socialisation is abormal this could have drastic effects on the childs capability as demonstrated by the case studies you identified.

  4. Whilst I don’t think it would be impossible to ever speak a word without human contact, it is still very unlikely as we are taught our language skills from others around us as a way to communicate with other people.
    Often when feral children are found they are unable to use any language but instead use noises such as howling to communicate as the animals they lived with did. Even though they are unable to speak at all many psychologists believe that they are born with the principles of language but just haven’t used them. It’s also believed that if children haven’t learnt how to speak by puberty then they never will as they won’t have the neurological development. Although, if language isn’t learnt between the ages of 1-4 (the critical period) it has been shown to be incredibly difficult to teach children to speak and to reintegrate them into human life.
    In many of the case studies you mentioned, the children involved were unable to live normal lives once discovered. However, in the 2 following case studies the children were able to live normal lives and were integrated easily in human life. One of these case studies of is Ivan Mishukov, a 6-year-old boy who lived with stray dogs for 2 years, but still remembered how to speak Russian and was able to go to school following his discovery. Another case of a feral child who learned to read and write, however, is Marie-Angelique Memmie Le Blanc of France – who even grew up to be very wealthy. This shows that some children, particularly younger children may be able to improve their language skills considerably with therapy.

  5. This is a very interesting read and also leads to the fact that language is not a result of our biology but because of us being nurtured and a result of the environment. I have done some research since reading your blog andfound stories similar one was about a boy they names victor he learnt how to read and write simple words in 5 years but never learnt to socialise with others 29 years after living with other humans. I beleive that we need the human contact in our early years because we learn a lot then and that is what sets us apart from animals.

  6. I have never heard of Kamala and Amala, so it was interesting for me to read about that. I find cases involving social isolation to be very intriguing because they are often so different. Obviously this is a result of varied circumstances of the individuals which is a risk taken with case studies, but it does remind us that all people are different and that it is hard to generalise the effects of circumstances such as social isolation. I remember learning about Genie and how she struggled to develop a language. But it is important to realise that what we recognise as language is subjective. You mentioned that Kamala and Amala howled like the wolves that raised them. Is that in itself not a type of language? We have no way of determining how complex the language of animals is as to us it is merely noise, but surely our language is noise to them? This may sound ridiculous, but I think it is important to recognise that what we class as language is not the only type of language that could exist. Language is something that has evolved over time – hence why different countries speak differently. I believe language is only as useful as it is necessary. If we could survive without it, there would be no need for it. Perhaps to people like Genie, noises like grunts or howls are a form of language. Therefore I believe we have to consider what language is, in order to answer whether it would be possible without human contact.

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