I dream of Genie

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There is a body of literature that documents Genie’s attempt to acquire language in greater detail. Her case has since become a point of referral in the ongoing debate between the nativist and empiricists. Noam Chomsky, a celebrated linguist and cognitive scientist, tends to leans toward the former, suggesting that language cannot be explained by learning alone (he postulates some learning acquisition device that kicks in when stimulated), whereas the latter suggest that environment is the key variable. Eric Lennebrg argues in addition to this that there are critical periods for acquisition, which he puts approximately up until to the age of twelve.

Genie was a minor success. She acquired some vocabulary and was able to communicate some feelings but ultimately missed the language explosion that occurs in regular development. There was no instinct to invent or to recombine words in new ways or experiment with semantic structures. She was stuck in a rut of simple referral, unable to master the rudiments of grammar, which is what Noam Chomsky maintains separates human communication from animal. This result would seem to bear out Lenneberg’s suggestion.

I don’t want to get into the arguments that followed this research about Genie’s long term care or the period in which she moved back with her mother or when she was moved from foster home to foster home (and the abuse that she suffered). Or indeed where she is today. If you are interested in following up on Genie the Wikipedia article sheds some light on that. I mention Genie’s case to help bolster the findings of the paper referred to in my previous blog. Genie missed critical developmental periods in her childhood. In her case these periods were replaced with horrific abuse, malnourishment and almost a complete absence of cognitive stimulation. Thankfully such occurrences are mercifully rare. Nevertheless, we can take a general lesson from Genie’s ordeal. The young brain is developing and vulnerable, and the environment it finds itself in leaves an indelible imprint upon it

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