What Happens if a Child Is Never Exposed to Language?

A Blog About Language
July 16 2014 1:17 PM

What Happens if a Child Is Never Exposed to Language?

nicaraguan_sign_language
A girl telling a story in Nicaraguan Sign Language, which was created spontaneously by children from minimal linguistic input.

Still from PBS documentary Evolution: The Mind's Big Bang

Children learn the language(s) that they hear and see around them at a young age, but what happens if a child just never has any linguistic input, spoken or signed? Although a scientific study around this question would undoubtedly be fascinating, it would also be extremely unethical, so much so that the cultural historian Roger Shattuck has called it The Forbidden Experiment.

In times less hampered by modern sensitivities and human rights, several rulers viewed such an experiment as less than verboten. The Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik I is reported by Herodotus around 600 B.C. to have isolated two newborns with a shepherd who was strictly instructed not to speak to them. Supposedly, the first word that these children uttered was becos, the word for "bread" in ancient Phrygian, but it seems quite likely that this was a willful interpretation of their babbling (think bababa).* A similar experiment was conducted by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century, but the Chronicle of Salimbene reports that "he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments."

Advertisement

In more recent centuries, we've discovered what happens when children are isolated from language through unfortunate circumstances. One example is "wild children," such as Victor and Genie, who have been abused or neglected, but as interesting as those cases are, it's hard to separate out the effects of language deprivation from other mistreatment.

Another way that children may be naturally isolated from language is if they're deaf children surrounded by people who don't speak a sign language. Although their families often manage a rudimentary form of communication with them, known as home sign, it resembles the ad hoc gestures that we'd do at a loud concert and lacks the full expressive powers of a complete sign language.

In Nicaragua in the 1980s, many such children were brought together in the country's first school for the deaf, where especially the younger children took the various home signs of their classmates and stitched them together into a full-fledged sign language, as you can see in the video below: A clip from the PBS documentary Evolution: The Mind's Big Bang. Nicaraguan Sign Language has been cited as evidence that although children require a certain amount of linguistic input at a young age in order to learn language, they're capable of generalizing from incomplete information to something far richer and more complex—a testament to the magnificent potential of the human brain.

*Correction: July 17, 2014. This post originally misspelled Phrygian.

Gretchen McCulloch is a linguist and the contributing editor of Slate's Lexicon Valley blog. She has a master's in linguistics from McGill University and blogs daily at All Things Linguistic.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.