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Compare and contrast nativist and learning theories of language development.
PSY 201 Discussion Nativist Theories
Do you believe there are critical periods for language development? Why or why not? In thinking of about your response, consider at least two of the following: the case study on Genie (the girl isolated from human contact), bilingualism, deaf children who have their hearing restored by cochlear implants, recovery from brain injury to language areas, or other relevant research findings of interest to you.
DQ2 Nativist and Learning Theories
Compare and contrast nativist and learning theories of language development. Which perspective do you think best captures how we develop language?
From time to time, there appear in our midst beings who challenge our conception of what it means to be human. These beings are often referred to as wild children or wolf children. They are often tragic figures, offering glimpses of what might have been, of fully human intelligence that somehow does not enable them to live a social life. This is particularly true if they are already through puberty when they are found. They suggest to us that there may be a ‘critical age’, an age beyond which any child who has somehow missed out on learning a language will never completely master one.
For example, Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron, found when he was about 11 years old, never learnt to speak, although he could understand, and could read a little.Kamala, of Midnapore, found at the age of 8, was able to speak a little, and to communicate through sounds.The most striking recent case, however, is rather more ambiguous in its results:
In 1970, two women, one of them suffering from cataracts, and partially blind, stumbled into the social services bureau of Temple City, in California, bringing with them a child. At first, the staff thought that the child was about 6 or seven years old, and that she was autistic – she weighed four stone, and stood 4′ 6″ high. She did not appear to talk.
On further investigation, she turned out to be 13 years old. She could understand some words – about 20, including the colours, red, blue, green and brown, the word ‘Mother’ and some other names, the verbs ‘walk’ and ‘go’ and a few other nouns, such as ‘door’ or ‘bunny’. She could say only two things – ‘Stopit’, and ‘Nomore’.
Why was she in this condition? When she had been about 20 months old, her father, who was suffering from a severe depression, sparked off by the accidental and brutal death of his mother, decided that she was severely retarded, and that she needed protection from the world. This protection he provided by shutting her up in a small bedroom, and leaving her there for the next eleven years.
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Genie was attached to a potty by a special harness for most of the day, and then, at night, she would be fastened into a sleeping bag, unable to move her arms, and put into a cot. There was very little sound in the house, for the father forced the rest of the family to speak in whispers. If Genie herself attempted to make any noise, her father would beat her with a stick. On those occasions upon which he felt the need to communicate with his daughter, her father would bark or growl like a dog.
Genie had very little visual or physical stimulation. Hung up in the room were a couple of plastic raincoats, and she was sometimes allowed to play with them. Other small toys – plastic containers, or the TV journal – were sometimes given her. Her feeding was swift and silent, and she had eaten nothing but baby foods and cereals – she did not know how to chew.
Genie was immediately surrounded by a team of scientists. These people were particularly interested in her progress in language. Would she ever learn to speak?
According to the neuropsychologist, Eric Lenneberg, in his book Biological Foundations of Language, 1967, the capacity to learn a language is indeed innate, and, like many such inborn mechanisms, it is circumscribed in time. If a child does not learn a language before the onset of puberty, the child will never master language at all. This is known as the critical period hypothesis. If Lenneberg was right, then Genie, at over 12 years old, would never be able to speak properly. If, on the other hand, she did learn to produce grammatically correct sentences, then Lenneberg was wrong.
At first, a number of the people working with her were convinced that she was going to demonstrate the falsity of the critical period hypothesis. One year after her escape, her language resembled that of a normal 18-20 month old child.
– she could distinguish between plural and singular nouns, and between positive and negative sentences. She was producing two-word sentences, and sometimes sentences of three words.It is at this point that the language of the normal child begins to take off – there is a sudden qualitative change, and the infant learns not only more and more vocabulary, but also more and more complex grammar. But with Genie, this did not happen.

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