Wordplay is a blog project featuring posts from students enrolled in ENG 320 Grammar and Linguistics (Fall 2019)
by Mattie Duzik
Yes, feral children, and no, they are not like the cats in the back alley.
A feral child is a human who was isolated at a very young age from any sort of engaging contact. As a result, they lack the vital language skills of a normal child. Feral children aren’t like Mowgli in the Jungle Book, but more likely have horrible parents who do not care for them. It can be hard to tell if the language delays are that due to lack of interaction or abuse, but either way, it is horrifying, yet intriguing to look further into such a taboo.
Below are a few cases of feral children that I have found quite interesting:
1. Prava (The Bird Boy), Russia, 2008
Prava was a boy found at 7 years old in a small room surrounded by birds. Although his mother never physically abused him, she did not speak to him, and she kept him like one of her pet birds. As a result, Prava could not speak, yet he chirped like a bird. Currently, he is getting psychological help to become rehabilitated.
2. Genie, USA, 1970
From the ages of 3-13, Genie was confined to a single room, without meaningful contact. Her stepfather believed she was mentally handicapped. She was tied to a chair and never learned how to properly speak. At age 13, she was taken by Child Protective Services. This finally freed her, but due to the isolation, Genie never acquired a first language. She did eventually begin to learn very basic language skills, but still was unable to really create a fluent spoken language. Genie was able to communicate through pictures, quite throughly. It is unclear where she is exactly, but it is thought that she is in a home for mentally underdeveloped adults
3. Lauren Kavanaugh, USA, Born in 1993 Lauren Kavanaugh’s case is similar to Genie’s, but it is a lot more open to the public. Lauren was locked up in a closet from about 3 years old to 8 years old with minimal contact. During this time, she was in the prime of her language development, but unlike Genie, she did not lack in her language nearly as much. One main difference is that Lauren was exposed to music regularly, whereas Genie was not. There have been theories that the music helped Lauren’s language development, but it is not conclusive. She was able to graduate high school at 20, and she went to community college.
All three of these children experienced abuse in one way or another, but they all differed in how their language came about. Prava learned his own “language” from the birds he was surrounded by, and it could be hard to decipher if that was his first language, or just a mimicked skill from the birds. I personally think it was a mimicked skill, but who knows? Genie is a tough case because it is unknown whether she was mentally handicapped before the abuse occurred, or if she became mentally handicapped due to the abuse, and therefore became nearly mute in her language. With Lauren, she experienced similar abuse to that of Genie, but was able to really take on a first language, especially after she was taken out of those conditions. I think the music playing was a huge help for her language learning and development, because it provided at least some mental stimulation for her.
Brogaard, B. (2017, July 10). The Feral Child Nicknamed Genie. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-superhuman-mind/201707/the-feral-child-nicknamed-genie.
Cockcroft, L. (2008, February 28). Russian ‘bird-boy’ discovered in aviary. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1580159/Russian-bird-boy-discovered-in-aviary.html.
Farwell, S. (n.d.). The Girl in the Closet. Retrieved from http://res.dallasnews.com/interactives/2013_October/lauren/#.XaOXd8pMHmo.
Mattie Duzik is a junior at CSC majoring in Elementary Education. She is from Craig, Colorado, and would like to teach there. Eventually, she would like to become an athletic director or principal.