In 1970, a thirteen-year-old girl was discovered in Los Angeles. Her name was Genie, and the conditions in which she was found were appalling. Genie had been treated like an animal since the age of twenty months. She was confined to a small, curtained room and spent most of her days strapped to a potty chair, unable to move except for her hands and feet. At night, Genie was confined in a cage-like crib and restrained in a straightjacket-type garment. She had no bowel or bladder control, could not stand in an erect posture, was severely malnourished, and was unable to chew solid food. Genie was also mute; she could not speak and could not understand language. The only sounds she had ever heard were those made by her father on the occasions he beat her for crying or making noises. Genie had been held prisoner by her father, a man who never spoke to her and would not allow anyone else to do so.
Genie was removed from her father’s custody and taken to Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, where she was nursed back to physical health. She underwent psychological evaluation to determine her mental status and level of cognitive functioning, including her ability to produce and comprehend language. Following all necessary assessments, psychologists were presented with a unique opportunity to study the critical period theory relative to learning language, the notion that there is a time early in a child’s life when language learning must begin, if language is to be learned at all. Genie was far past that proposed critical period. Further, she knew no grammar and had virtually no language ability.
The researchers working with Genie approached the task of teaching her language in much the same manner they would teach a younger child, by direct exposure to spoken language as a function of engagement in daily activities. Initially, Genie would speak only one or two words at a time, but she did progress, up to a point. Though she eventually progressed to the degree of combining two and three words into phrases, she never progressed beyond the level of a three- or four-year-old child in her language abilities, and never made the progression from simple words into grammatically correct sentences.
The fact that Genie actually did acquire some facility for language denied support for the hypothesis that there is a critical period for language acquisition, and that this period falls somewhere between age two and puberty. However, Genie’s failure to attain fluency and grammar did point to the potential for an optimal period for language acquisition, a period that, if missed, would result in failure ever to attain complete facility for language. Unfortunately, no more specific information could be gained from Genie’s experiences, because her lack of facility for language could be attributable to her severely malnourished state, the emotional and physical abuse suffered at the hands of her father, and her social isolation, as much as to a potential optimal period for language acquisition.
By age twenty-four, Genie had received eleven years of special eduation and rehabilitation to include foster care, yet her language capability remained short of that expected in a five-year-old child.
I. After reading Genie’s story, post your answer to this discussion:
II. Read the posts of your classmates and reply to at least two other students.