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Genie and Language Acquisition

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1 Genie and Language Acquisition
How children learn to speak and what happens once they pass the critical period without having done so.

2 Infants: 0-10 mos. Infants can distinguish sounds from birth, even if those sounds are not part of their parents’ speech. By six months, babies begin to lump together sounds into phonemes and separate them so that their language keeps separate. By ten months, they cease to distinguish sounds from different languages that are not present in their own.

3 Physical Development for Speech
During their first year, babies’ bodies change so that they can speak. Their larynx comes up, which forces the baby to breathe through the nose so that they can drink and breathe at the same time. The larynx descends deep into the throat, opening the pharynx that allows the tongue to produce vowels.

4 Stages in Language Learning
Between five and seven months, babies begin to play with sounds and their vocal noises begin to sound like consonants and vowels. Between seven and eight months they begin to babble in real syllables. Around their first birthday, they begin to understand and produce words.

5 Speed Learning At around eighteen months, a baby’s vocabulary will jump to the rate of a new-word-every-two-hours minimum that the child will maintain through adolescence. Syntax also begins here with strings of two word sentences. In 95% of the case, their words are in the right order.

6 The Sesame Street Experiment
A voiceover said, “OH LOOK!!! BIG BIRD IS TICKLING COOKIE MONSTER! FIND BIG BIRD TICKLING COOKIE MONSTER!!” The children must have understood the meaning of the ordering of words because they looked more at the screen that depicted the sentence of the voiceover afterwards. Even before they can put two words together, babies can comprehend a sentence using its syntax.

7 Growing Up As babies get older, their speech gets more complex, as soon, they find themselves able to embed one constituent inside another. By the age of three, children use function words in over 90% of the sentences that require them.

8 Picking Up Language Without already knowing the language, it’s difficult for a child to figure out what the characters on television are talking about. When they listen to their parents, for example, children are able to guess at what the parents are saying, especially when they already know a lot of the content words, based on their bodily gestures. Much of what we learn is from conversation.

9 The Critical Period From the around the ages of 3 to 12.
Language can be acquired until puberty, at which the ability to learn language slows down rapidly. Cases in which people make it to puberty without having learned a language are rare, but they all point to the same conclusion: they never learn it as well as those who learned it as children.

10 After the Critical Period
Children who are found in the woods or in the homes of psychotic parents after puberty sometimes develop a vocabulary. However, they are permanently incapable of mastering the full grammar of their language. Acquisition of a normal language is guaranteed for children up to the age of six, is steadily compromised from then until shortly after puberty, and is extremely rare thereafter.

11 Saved During the Critical Period
When children are discovered before they hit puberty, however, they have a much better chance of learning the full grammar. Isabelle was six and a half when she and her mute, brain-damaged mother escaped from the her grandfather’s house, where they were imprisoned. A year and a half later she had learned words and could produce complex grammatical sentences such as: Do you go to Miss Mason’s school at the university? Why does the paste come out if one upsets the jar?

12 Genie Genie was discovered in 1970 at the age of thirteen and seven months in a Los Angeles suburb. She was confined up until that point by her controlling father, who abused her regularly. Because she had not acquired language up until that point, linguists used her to test the critical period theory.

13 When Genie was Found When Genie was first found, they couldn’t tell at first whether or not she had already acquired language and simply wasn’t using it or if she indeed had not acquired language. Because she did not respond to simple commands but did respond to words that were clearly out of the context of their environment, it was determined that Genie truly had not yet acquired language.

14 Initial Observations about Genie
When she was first discovered, most of the sounds that came out of her mouth were voiceless. Normal people learn very early in life how to speak and breathe at the same time. Genie, however, never learned how to do so.

15 First Words Genie’s first basic ‘words’ were monosyllabic consonant-vowel sequences. After five months, she began to use single words spontaneously. Her early vocabulary was different from the first words of regular children which are typically nouns, plus particles like up and down.

16 How she was taught to Speak
The tests that were created to show Genie’s progress in learning showed that Genie was acquiring language, but not through imitation or prescribed rules. Genie learned plurals by learning to match the test pictures with a string of the following sort: 1+N+S, 2+N+S, etc. So if Curtiss, one of the members of the team who worked with her, said “three dishes,” Genie would construct the string 3 dish S. In five lessons, Genie had mastered the plural concept.

17 The Differences that Kept her Separate
There are a few major differences between her and regular children who acquire language as babies: Her vocabulary was different and much larger than that of children at the same stage of syntactic development. The rate of her syntactic acquisition was much slower than normal.

18 Results Genie eventually learned to produce immature, pidgin like sentences such as: Mike Paint. Applesauce buy store. I like elephant eat peanut. Neal come happy; Neal not come sad.

19 Other Explanations for Lack of Speech
Some hypothesize that the reason why people like Genie never learn to speak successfully is because they have emotional scars that interfere somehow with their ability to learn.

20 However… Chelsea was born deaf in a remote town in Northern California. At the age of 31, she was referred to a neurologist who fitted her with hearing aids that improved her hearing to near-normal levels. She now knows two thousand words and has become social and independent. She never learned proper syntax, though.

21 Results The paper on Genie was published as they were still teaching Genie to talk, so it ends by saying that they have yet to learn whether or not it is true that learning to speak after the critical period is impossible. Time proved that the critical period theory was correct. Eventually, Genie stopped improving and shortly thereafter, her mother placed a restraining order on the team that was working with her. She currently resides in a home for mentally retarded adults.

22 Sources Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct. William Morrow and Company, 1994. Curtiss, Susan. Fromkin, Victoria. Krashen, Stephen. Rigler, David. Rigler, Marylyn. "The Linguistic Development of Genie." Language: Journal of the Linguistic Society of America 50, 3(September 1974):

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