Feral Children and Nature-Nurture Controversy in Language Acquisition

Fernanda Marana
May 10, 2019 · 5 min read


When talking about language acquisition, there is a debate about human language development known as the nature-nurture controversy. The first approach is the “innatism” with the concept that knowledge originates in human nature and is already in mind since birth. Chomsky’s language acquisition theory explains: Since the infant period, the human brain develops a structure known as “Language Acquisition Device” (LAD) which enables children to pick up the grammatical principles of the language and learn to speak as quickly as they do (Cherry, 2019).

As the second approach, behaviorism describes the language learning process as a result of children extracting all linguistic information from the environment. In other words, by having adults speak to them, the infants discern patterns in the language gradually. Hence, the essential concept of this approach is that language acquisition is all about habit formation and the outcome of nurture (Shanawaz, 2019).

Reisberg’s book argues that children are keenly sensitive to patterns in language that they are learning. So, by receiving stimuli from the environment, they can detect the patterns in speech. But that is only possible because humans have sophisticated neural machinery specialized for learning language that enables them to understand and produce speech as the passage of their lives. So how do these theories apply to the “feral children”?

Feral children are humans who have lived isolated from human contact from a very young age and have little or no experience in human behavior. Although there are attempts to reintegrate them into society by teaching how to speak or act, their communicative skills are limited to very low levels even as they grow older. (Jarman, 2019). In some cases, they learn how to dress and to walk erect as an adult, but not to speak as one. Why does this happen if these children are humans and are receiving stimuli from society?


In developmental psychology, the critical period is a stage in the lifespan of a human during which the nervous system is very sensitive to certain environmental stimuli. As shown in Cherry’s article (2019), the linguist Eric Lennerberg suggests this period lasts until around 12 years old and — after that — the brain is no longer able to acquire a skill such as language in a fully functional manner.

This theory can be shown in many cases of Feral Children such as Genie. On November 4 of 1970, a thirteen-year-old girl was discovered confined to a small room. Authorities revealed that the child had spent most of her life in there, tied to a chair and in utter deprivation. She did not know how to chew or talk. Her silence made it difficult to assess her mental abilities. Due to the huge interest in understanding what a human without society’s influence was like, funds were provided for Genie’s rehabilitation. She soon began to make rapid progress in areas like using the toilet or dressing. In the language field, Genie started to add new words to her vocabulary and eventually began putting two or three words together. However, instead of putting the newly acquired words in a novel way — as children with normal development would do — Genie remained stuck and could not apply grammatical rules in her speeches. Thus, her inability to arrange words in a meaningful way strongly supports the idea of a critical period in language development (Cherry, 2019).

The usage of grammar — according to Noam Chomsky — is what separates human language from animal communication. As already said, he defended the theory that humans are born with a language acquisition device and, once exposed to language, it enables children to learn a language. However, what if the sounds that the children are exposed to are not human?

Animals, as explained by Reisberg, have their own communication systems such as alarm calls or dances. Yet these systems are extremely limited by not having a lot of vocabularies or rules of syntax. Thus, in cases of feral children found living with other species, other questions are raised.

In 1920, two girls were discovered living with wolves and were named Kamala and Amala. Both of them had behaviors similar to wolves such as sniffing food and walking on all fours. The youngest one, Amala, did not survive for long after their rescue. On the other hand, Kamala went to rehabilitation and after five years at the orphanage, she was able to demonstrate some intellectual functions. She learned some words, but she did not use them in a spontaneous way (Edublox, 2019). Kamala died at the age of sixteen leaving no more evidence to understand if her inability to produce complex sentences was due to the critical period theory. There is also the possibility that her language acquisition device acquired the communication system of wolves as her primary language during her infancy, which is the time — Linguanaut’s article explains — when a person cannot consciously process the stages of language acquisition.

Discussion & Conclusion

There is no doubt that studying “Feral Children” is important for the nurture-nature controversy. As Harlan Lee arguments ( presented in Cherry’s article) show: morality does not allow scientists to conduct deprivation experiments with human beings and thus explanations must rely on these unfortunate feral cases.

Yet, there is no certainty of which theory surpass the other. Children that were adopted by animals acquire some of their behavior meaning that the environment does play a significant role in their development. At the same time, with rehabilitation, these children can still learn how to speak even if limited. Thus they must have a genetic feature that allows them to do so.

So, instead of this controversy, it is more consistent to say that language learning may depend on both nature and nurture aspects (Shanawaz, 2019).


Reisberg, D. (2016). Chapter 10: Language. (Sixth ed.) Cognition: Exploring the science of the mind. (pp. 373–377 ) New York: W.W. Norton & Company

Edublox, Feral Children: How They Throw New Light on Learning Disabilities | Edublox Online Tutor. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.edubloxtutor.com/feral-children-how-they-throw-new-light-on-learning-disabilities/

Cherry, K. (2019). Overview of Feral Child Genie Wiley. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/genie-the-story-of-the-wild-child-2795241

Shanawaz, M. (2019). Nature vs. Nurture Debate in Language Acquisition. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/3226850/Nature_vs._Nurture_Debate_in_Language_Acquisition

Linguanaut, Stages of Language Learning. (2019). Retrieved from http://www.linguanaut.com/stages_of_language_learning.htm

Jarman, M. (2019). Feral children. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/feral-children

Fernanda Marana

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Computer Scientist, book lover, amateur writer and getting inspired by people everyday.

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