In this weeks blog, we wanted to explore the notion of Language Deprivation Experiments. These experiments have been recorded several times throughout history, and consist of isolating infants from any form of language (spoken or signed), to gather information about the origin or nature of language. For obvious reasons, the experiment is often referred to as ‘The Forbidden Experiment’, due to the exceptional deprivation of ordinary human contact it requires, and the extreme cruelty that would be necessary.  

In history

Records of the forbidden experiment can be found of this can be found as early as 440 BC, in Herodotus’s Histories. According to Herodotus, an Egyptian pharaoh carried out such an experiment and used this to conclude that the Phrygian (now part of Turkey) people must predate the Egyptians, as the test subject child had spoken something similar to the Phrygian for bread. It is highly likely that this was simply a wilful misinterpretation of the child’s babbling, to back up their own ideas.

Skipping forward to the 15th Century, James IV of Scotland is said to have sent two children to be raised by a mute woman, isolated on an island in Scotland, to determine if language was learned or innate. It was alleged that the children spoke good Hebrew, but historians were skeptical of these claims soon after they were made. A century later, this experiment was repeated by the Mughal (now India) emperor, who concluded that speech arose from hearing and that children who were raised without human speech would become mute.

The Critical Period Hypothesis

Naturally, in modern times, there have been no recorded cases of language deprivation experiments. However,  several cases of language deprivation have been looked at, which have been used to back up the critical period hypothesis. The critical period is the idea that the ability to acquire language is biologically linked to age. The hypothesis claims there is an ideal time period to acquire language, after which language acquisition becomes much more difficult, and requires a tremendous amount of effort. 

In modern times

The most well-known case of a language deprived child is that of Genie. Genie was discovered at 13 years old, in 1971, having been subjected to a lifetime of abuse at the hands of her father. She had been completely neglected in all ways, including rarely ever being spoken to, or exposed to any language at all. The first tests of her language were taken three years after her discovery, after some informal training in foster homes. She was able to comprehend instructions, but this was dependant on pantomime and gesture. After four years of language stimulation, her linguistic performance was similar to that of a two-year-old infant. Genie’s inability to fully acquire a first language was put down to the fact that she had only really begun to learn language at 13 and a half years old. 

What do you think of the Critical Period Hypothesis? Do you think it would be possible for anyone to learn a first language as an adult?

Let us know on our social media pages: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Linkedin!

For information on our Language Services