What Happens If Children Grow Up Without Language?


    We know that a songbird, when being isolated from the other songbirds, will never learn how to sing. Does the same rule apply for humans? What happens when children are isolated from language? This is called language deprivation, which occurs when someone has no access to natural language or linguistic stimuli.

    Our curiosity of whether children would develop a language in isolation remains a heated debate. Throughout the years, experiments that involve isolating someone from society have always been prohibited due to ethical reasons. However, natural experiments in real cases can tell us many things about language deprivation in early age. Genie Wiley is one example.

The case of Genie Wiley

    Meet Genie, a girl who was isolated from the outside world for over 13 years in a small closed room. Genie–a fake name given to protect her privacy and identity–was born in 1957 in California. She was a victim of neglect and abuse, which points out how social isolation can extremely destroy children’s psychological condition and language development. You can watch the documentary here:

    Genie’s father, Clark, had severe anger problems which led him to being abusive to his wife and his children. He disliked children despite having one son and one daughter, Genie. Genie couldn’t walk properly due to hip dislocation which made Clark think that she was mentally retarded. Consequently, he neglected her and prohibited his wife and his son from talking to her at all.

    When Genie turned 20 months old, she was confined in a bedroom, tied to a child’s toilet during the daytime and tied to a crib at night. Any voices she made would result in Clark beating her. He had a very low tolerance for noises and barely allowed anyone to talk in their house, particularly to Genie. This indicates that she had never been exposed to natural language. Later in 1970 at the age of 13, Genie was finally rescued by the social worker, when her mother took her out after seeking disability benefits for herself.

The “critical stage” hypothesis

    The case of Genie fascinated linguists particularly on her language deprivation. When she was rescued, she neither talked nor made noises at all. She mostly used non-linguistic cues or nonverbal language to communicate, through eye-contact and body movements, during the first months of her therapy.

    Susan Curtiss and her fellow linguist researchers believed that this is closely tied with the “critical period” hypothesis proposed by Eric Lenneberg in 1967. Lenneberg argued that language acquisition is influenced by biological constraints, which develops during the critical period that begins from the age of two until the age of puberty (12-13 years old).

    During this period, our neuroplasticity handles internal and external stimuli very well which allows us to effectively obtain certain skills, including learning languages. This range or period is due to the fact that brain maturation is not fully developed before the age of two, and pubertal hormones decrease brain plasticity. After this period ends, the brain would be less sensitive to stimuli (Lenneberg, 1967 as cited in Wilson, 2018).

    Genie learned language and was mainly assisted by Curtiss. She was able to use various vocabularies and had a strong desire to label things around her. However, her language ability stuck in this stage because she kept failing at applying grammatical rules. She couldn’t distinguish active and passive voices, nor identify quantifiers. Her language ability was adequate to a two-year old infant’s. Linguists argued that it was because she missed her own critical period, as she was severely isolated until the age of 13 (Fromkin, V.  et al., 1974).

    They also found that Genie acquired language in the right hemisphere of her brain, while language acquisition normally takes place in the left hemisphere, specifically in the Wernicke's and Broca’s area. This furthermore indicated that her language ability would slow down in the future since she had a limited capacity of language acquisition (Fromkin, V.  et al., 1974). That’s why she heavily relied on nonverbal languages, which convinced the researchers to teach her sign languages as an alternative for communication (Curtiss, S. et al., 1978).

    We can conclude that language deprivation during the critical period resulted in a delayed language acquisition. Despite that, Curtiss admitted Genie had a strong curiosity to learn her surroundings, to label every color she sees with her own words, and to use nonverbal language to signal her thoughts. Genie taught us that humans, as social beings, have an innate desire to communicate in various ways. 

    Until this present day, Genie’s whereabouts remain a privacy since her mother stopped the research. She believed that Genie was more perceived as an object of research rather than a victim who needs love and care. Curtiss, who was considered close by Genie’s mother, has never gained permission to reach her out ever since (Cherry, 2022). This case has shed a light on many branches of research, particularly psycholinguistics. But most importantly, her story wakes people up from underestimating child abuse and neglect. Hopefully she lives her best life today.

Writer: Maychaella Novita

Editor: Andrea Zelina


Curtiss, S., et al. (1978). Language development in the mature (minor) right hemisphere. ITL-International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 39(1), 23-37. DOI:10.1075/itl.39-40.02cu

Cherry, Kurtis. (2022, February 7). The Story of Genie, a Child Deprived of Nearly All Human Contact. Verywell Mind. Retrieved from: https://www.verywellmind.com/genie-the-story-of-the-wild-child-2795241#

Fromkin, V., et al. (1974). The development of language in Genie: a case of language acquisition beyond the “critical period”. Brain and language, 1(1), 81-107. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/0093-934X(74)90027-3

Wilson, I. (2018). A brief overview of psycholinguistic approaches to second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics Research Journal, 2(2), 1-7.