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.