The Critical Period Hypothesis supported by Genie's case

Seminar Paper, 2002

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 The Critical Period Hypothesis

3 Genie's case
3.1 ...up to her recovery
3.2 ...since her recovery
3.3 Genie's linguistic development

4 Genie, an evidence for the CPH

5 Acquiring first and second language after the CP

6 Bibliography

1 Introduction

In 1967 Eric Heinz Lenneberg established his groundbreaking work Biological Foundations of Language[1] in which he tries to push the biological view on language forward. One important point that is discussed is "language in the context of growth and maturation"[2]. The Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) is the essence of this considerations. Lenneberg tries to find evidence for his theory in the study of retarded, aphasic or deaf children and in neurological studies. But at this time the most striking proof for the CPH, Genie, was still imprisoned in a small room in her parents home.

Three years after Lenneberg published his work on the CPH, 13½ years-old Genie was recovered by an eligibility worker and her case rapidly aroused the interest of neurologists, psychologists and linguists.

Susan Curtiss, a graduate student of the UCLA Linguistic Department got the possibility to work with Genie for the years to come. Her work Genie - A Psycholinguistic Study of a Modern-Day 'Wild Child'[3] compiles her experiences on working with Genie added by a detailed case history. What Susan Curtiss found out about Genie's linguistic development seems to be the evidence for the existence of a critical phase for first language acquisition.

This term paper for the course gives a brief definition of Lenneberg's Critical Period Hypothesis, summarizes the case history and the data of Genie's linguistic development and, according to Susan Curtiss, relates Genie's case directly to the CPH. Over and above that, it tries to explain, why Genie developed a certain amount of language and with this proved the 'strong' version of Lenneberg's hypothesis as wrong.

2 The Critical Period Hypothesis

The term 'Critical Period' (CP) was first established in 1967 by Eric Heinz Lenneberg. The fourth chapter of his book presents the hypothesis that language has to be seen 'in the context of growth and maturation' and that language acquisition depends on the age of the language learner. He proposes that there is one critical phase between the age of two and about 13 years (before puberty) in which an individual is able to acquire first language (FL).

Acquiring first language after this period is much more difficult and will never reach the perfect status of language acquired during the CP.

For Lenneberg the limiting factors of language are not related to the environment or to changes in the availability of stimuli. For him language originates in the growing individual. "Language cannot begin to develop until a certain level of physical maturation and growth has been attained"[4] and it "develops harmoniously by necessary integration of neuronal and skeletal structures (...), by reciprocal adaptation of various physiological processes"[5] and after all by an unspecified minimal exposure to language. This biological view relates the maturation of language directly to "the maturation of one particular organ of the body (...) which develops and matures like any other organ of the body"[6] ; e.g. our sexual maturation and makes the CPH plausible - after puberty the sexual maturation stands still, the individiual does e.g . no longer grow taller; the language development also stands still, "the brain behaves as if it had become set in its ways."[7] The "cerebral plasticity"[8] of young children is replaced by the development of cerebral dominance and the lateralization of functions.

Lenneberg according to Noam Chomsky believes that language is innately and biologically determined and in the existence of an innate universal set of grammar (UG).

3 Genie's case

3.1 ...up to her recovery

Genie[9][10] was discovered in 1970. She was an adolescent, 13½ years old, who did not react to temperature (heat or cold), did not know how to chew, couldn't stand erect or straighten her arms or legs, she couldn't run or climb and could only walk with great difficulties. Genie weighed only 59 pounds and was only 54 inches tall, she was incontinent of feces and urine, her hair was sparse and stringy and she spitted onto anything at hand. Genie didn't vocalize in any way, she was "unsocial, primitive, hardly human."[11]

Genie was born in 1957. During her first six months Genie developed completely normal and her parents regularly visited a pediatrician, who noted that everything was OK with her.

There are only a few other details known about her first year. Genie's mother reported that Genie resisted any solid food. She was manifesting developmental problems and lags. The cause for these problems is unknown, but one reason might be that Genie's father hated his daughter and did not allow his wife to spend too much time with or attention to her.

At 14 months Genie developed an acute pneumonia and the pediatrician stated that Genie showed signs of possible retardation. This statement had disastrous consequences for Genie: her father was very jealous of the attention her mother paid to Genie and he used this statement as justification for the subsequent isolation and abuse Genie suffered.

After Genie's grandmother was killed by a truck while crossing the street, Genie's father moved his family into his dead mother's home. There he isolated the whole family from the outside world.

In this house Genie was confined to a small bedroom, harnessed to an infant's potty seat, unable to move anything except her fingers, hands, feet and toes. She was left to sit, tied-up, hour after hour, often into the night, year after year. At night, when she was not forgotten, Genie was placed into a sleeping bag which her father had fashioned to hold Genie's arms stationery.

During the years there was little for Genie to listen to; the father had an intolerance for noise, so the house was kept at a low volume without TV or radio and only little conversation. Except for moments of anger, when her father swore, Genie did not hear any language and thus received no auditory stimulation of any kind. Whenever Genie herself made any sound, her father beat her with a large piece of wood left in the corner of Genie's room. Genie learned to keep silent and to suppress any vocalization.


[1] Eric H. Lenneberg, Biological Foundations of Language (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1967)

[2] ibid., p. xii

[3] Susan Curtiss, Genie - A Psycholinguistic Study of a Modern-Day 'Wild Child' (New York: Academic Press, 1977)

[4] Lenneberg, p. 158

[5] ibid., p. 175

[6] Judith R. Strozer, Language Acquisition After Puberty (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1994), p. 132

[7] Lenneberg, p. 158

[8] In his 'equipotentiality hypothesis' Lenneberg proposes that the two hemispheres are equally able to control language up to the end of the critical period. (Lenneberg, p. 151) 'Cerebral plasticity' means that " childhood the two sides are not yet sufficiently specialized for function..." (Lenneberg, p.153)

[9] cf. Curtiss, part I

[10] Genie is not the girl's real name, it was given to protect her privacy and identity. The name was chosen because it captures the fact that Genie "emerged into human society past childhood, having existed previously as something other than fully human." Curtiss, p.xiii

[11] ibid., p. 9

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The Critical Period Hypothesis supported by Genie's case
Ruhr-University of Bochum
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Critical, Period, Hypothesis, Genie
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Anne Fuchs (Author), 2002, The Critical Period Hypothesis supported by Genie's case, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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