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The Feral Child Nicknamed Genie

Sad case of child abuse sheds light on language production versus comprehension.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Genie was born to deranged parents. Her father was extremely intolerant of loud noises and didn't want children, but he and his wife ended up having babies. Lots of them. Most of them died from child neglect. Genie was one of few who survived.

Because of her father's sensitivity to noice and lack of care for others, Genie spent the first 13 years of her life strapped to a potty or a chair in a homemade straightjacket. If she made any noise whatsoever, her dad would beat her with a baseball bat. She was never spoken to. She was a true feral child.

When Child Protective Services finally intervened, Genie had virtually no physical abilities beyond those of a toddler. She was severely underweight and couldn't speak.

Linguist Susan Curtiss befriended her and attempted to teach her language and challenge her mental abilities. Susan Curtiss quickly learned that Genie was highly intelligent. She was able to tell sophisticated stories, not in words, but in pictures. Using pictures, she could tell intricate narratives.

Susan Curtiss worked with Genie to teach her English. Genie soon developed a rather large lexicon and was able to express herself. But despite extensive training, she remained unable to produce grammatical sentences. Here is a transcript of one of her reports of her time in the hands of her father:

Father hit arm. Big wood. Genie cry ... Not spit. Father. Hit face—spit ... Father hit big stick. Father angry. Father hit Genie big stick. Father take piece wood hit. Cry. Me cry.

Despite the tragedy that surrounds the case of Genie, her case teaches us an important lesson about language abilities. Telling a story (not necessarily in a grammatical way or even by using words) as well as understanding language are very different from being able to produce grammatical sentences in a language.

The language areas of the brain are actually divided between Wernicke's area and Broca's area (among other important language facilitating areas). Wernicke's area sits on the left side of the head (just above the ear) in the temporal lope, whereas the Broca area is located at the beginning of the frontal part of the brain (a bit further front). Wernicke's area is responsible for understanding speech and other communicative signals, whereas Broca's area is mainly in charge of producing grammatical sentences (alongside the motor area, which is needed to express what you want to say verbally—using lip movement and gestures, for instance).

The case of Genie confirms that there is a certain window of opportunity that sets the limit for when you can become relatively fluent in a language. Of course, if you already are fluent in another language, the brain is already primed for language acquisition and you may well succeed in becoming fluent in a second or third language. If you have no experience with grammar, however, Broca's area remains relatively hard to change: you cannot learn grammatical language production later on in life. But the abilities to understand language and produce language in ways that do not rely on grammar largely make use of Wernicke's area in the temporal lope. This area is capable of expanding and rewiring throughout life—even after the teen years. The case of Genie confirms this. Grammar was beyond reach for her. But language comprehension and storytelling were not.

The takeaway of this tragic case sits well with the established idea that Wernicke's area in the brain—the area for language comprehension—absorbs various languages and meaningful signals in a unified way, whereas the Broca area—the area of the brain that is in charge of grammatical speech production—stores native (or first) languages and (second) languages learned later in life in separate areas.

Berit "Brit" Brogaard is an author of The Superhuman Mind.

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