Can humanity exist without a language or culture

Wolf children

A childhood without words

They grow up without language, for example because they spent their childhood locked up in a chamber: wolf children. Until someone finds them, they often have little or no contact with others - and thus with the language. Attempts to teach these children to speak often fail. Some learn to speak a little, others not at all.

In 1800 hunters found a neglected boy in a forest near the town of Saint-Sernin in the Aveyron area of ​​France. He was about ten years old, wore no clothes except for a torn shirt and was making animal sounds.

The hunters first took the boy to an orphanage in Saint-Affrique and a few months later to Paris, to an institute for deaf and dumb children. There Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard - the head physician of the institution - took the child into his care and gave him the name Victor.

Itard saw it as his job to get Victor used to other people. Itard tried to teach Victor the language with simple exercises. The boy was supposed to repeat sounds and later also words. Despite the daily training, Victor learned few words. Itard was frustrated.

With a little more success he taught the boy to read and write. He wrote letters and words on cards and explained their meanings to Victor. Victor learned adjectives like big and small, verbs like drink and eat, and colors like red and green. He even saved the words in his memory - and could later write them down by heart.

Itard taught the boy from the wild for five years. Until he lost patience and gave up on the boy. He failed to teach him to speak. Victor lived in the home for deaf children until his death. He died at the age of 38 and remained silent to the end.

Genie grew up in isolation

In the 1970s, Los Angeles authorities discovered a girl named Genie. It was emaciated, pale, and seemed mentally retarded for its thirteen years.

The father had kept the girl in a room for over twelve years. During the day he tied her naked to a children's toilet chair, at night to her bed. He fed her but didn't speak to her. Genie had few things to play with. Her window was covered by a curtain. The father beat up the girl and kept yelling at her.

Genie's cognitive skills were like those of a two-year-old. Nevertheless, she was curious and attentive. After a week she was able to say a few words.

Her condition improved in the months that followed. She gained weight and went for a walk. After a year she was able to understand others well, but she could hardly speak herself. Her vocabulary was about a hundred words.

For eight years, linguist Susan Curtis studied Genie's ability to speak. However, it made little progress.

Her utterances were ungrammatical, that is, she inflected verbs incorrectly or not at all and put the words in her sentences in the wrong order.

Isabelle remained silent for six years

Isabelle's story was different. The girl was born in the US state of Ohio in 1932. Her grandmother kept her and her mother in a chamber for over six years. The two lacked any contact with the outside world.

Isabelle's mother could neither speak nor read nor write. She communicated using gestures that she had made up herself. So Isabelle had no verbal input at all during that time. In 1938 - Isabelle was about six and a half - the mother was able to escape from the chamber.

Isabelle was treated in a language clinic. After a week she could say a few words, after only three months she could form whole sentences and ask questions. Unfortunately, Isabelle's case has not been further documented, so it is not known whether she ever fully learned to speak.

Grew up with dogs

In 1991 social workers in Ukraine found eight-year-old Oxana. She ran on all fours and barked. She could hardly speak. Her parents had forgotten her outside in the garden when Oxana was about three years old. They were heavy alcoholics and apparently had not noticed the girl's disappearance.

Oxana sought refuge in a dog house - and lived there for five years. The dog took care of Oxana, brought her food and warmed her.

Today Oxana lives in a nursing home for people with disabilities. She can hardly speak, nothing more than simple sentences she can get out. She doesn't get along well with other people either. She will probably never recover from the damage she suffered in her childhood.

A similar fate befell a boy named Edik, whose parents - also alcoholics - were unable to look after their son. Most of the time Edik spent with street dogs.

In 1999 the four-year-old was found in an apartment in Ukraine. He was taken to an orphanage where he slowly learned to speak. At six he was at the language level of a two year old. Still, the chances are good that Edik will be able to speak sensibly at some point. However, his social behavior will probably always be disturbed.

What do scientists say about such cases?

Many factors can determine whether a person learns their mother tongue later in life. It may have something to do with age.

Linguists assume that there is a critical phase in which a person can acquire a language. This phase extends roughly from birth to puberty.

It is unclear whether a person will still be able to acquire a language after this phase. Isabelle was six and a half when she started learning to speak. After a short time she was able to form sentences.

Genie and Victor were twice their age. Neither of them were able to speak properly, even after extensive training. They couldn't get beyond single words or phrases.

Childhood social circumstances can also play a decisive role. Genie was severely psychologically traumatized by the years of abuse. Isabelle, on the other hand, grew up with her mother, albeit isolated from the rest of the world. Oxana and Edik only knew the social behavior of dogs, not that of humans.

Isabelle learned to speak because she learned sign language from her mother. She knew at least a rudimentary form of language, if not a spoken one. This enabled her to transfer her knowledge of sign language to the spoken language later.

Linguists will not be able to answer the question of whether there is a critical phase for language acquisition anytime soon. Because such research is always preceded by a tragic event - a child who is abused by his parents or who grows up in complete isolation.