Genie Nature Or Nurture Essay

Genie Essay

The story of Genie began in Los Angeles on November 4th 1970 when she was found at the age of 13 years old. She was locked by her parents in a room in complete isolation. After the discovery, she was taken to a Children's hospital in Los Angeles were she started to be studied by psychologists. Genie had a strange way of walking due to the fact that she had been prevented from walking in her isolation. She barely vocalized because she had been beaten by her parents for doing it, she was afraid of experiencing the same and that was why she was silent most of the time.

At the University of Los Angeles, Professor Susan Curtis and her students were investigating the ability to learn a language and the case of Genie was the best opportunity to develop it more. Susan Curtis explained her students that Genie was not the real name of the little girl; it was just a metaphor of what she really represented for them. She wanted to make them realize that what was really important was helping her to speak.

Then, a group was formed to study Genie's case. Susan Curtis, among others, was asked to join this group. James Kent, a psychologist, said that she had some fascinating qualities. One of these qualities was the way in which she explored the new world. She experienced the new world by touching as if she were blind. He wanted to see how Genie reacted with social relationships and he could see how she showed happiness or sadness in different situations. James deduced that if she had the capacity to create a strong bond with someone, she would have the capacity to learn.

Jay Shurley, a psychiatrist, wanted to know how she had survived all these years in isolation. He tried to get information directly from her brain by measuring the electrical activity in her brain while she slept. The brain test showed psychologists that Genie's brain was damaged but it made them wonder if it was damaged because of the abuses she received for long years or because she was mentally retarded from birth.

Since she was a baby, her father thought that she was retarded and because of that she was locked in isolation. After the discovery of Genie, her father killed himself and her mother blamed Genie's father for being so dominant and do not letting her take care of her daughter.

Another case like Genie's happened few years before hers in France. A wild child was found in the forest with animal behaviour. Scientists named him Victor and he was only 12 years old. The first Anthropological society investigated him and wondered about what makes us humans. Victor was sent to a deaf school despite he was able to hear. Scientists said that the boy was retarded from birth and that he was unable to...

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The language acquisition question is one of the oldest linguistic debates in the discipline that still has no simple answer. So many people have voiced their opinions on whether they think it is nature or nurture that helps us to acquire language, and equally, many have failed in their process to actually prove anything despite how much research, time and effort has been put in.

One study that is consistently referred to in the past 45 years is that of the feral child Genie Wiley. Linguists, scientists and psychologists have all used Genie as a primary case study in the language acquisition debate since she was taken from an abusive father by child welfare authorities in Los Angeles in 1970 (Dowling 2004: 64) and subsequently the subject of studies into brain and language development. On the surface Genie seems to provide evidence for both nativist and constructivist sides of the debate, but a closer look at her unique case leads us to rethink if she is actually a reliable source to use at all, or if there ever will be someone we could study instead of her.

Genie was found in a small, dark room where she had been tied to a potty from the age of just a few months old.  When she was discovered, Genie was 13 ½ and was mute due to her lack of communications with the outside world. The only interactions she had with other humans was with her father and brother who simply grunted at her when they tied her up or needed her to move. She seemed like the ideal candidate to test the debate on.

The first issue that people encountered with Genie was her mental state. Although it has been suggested that Genie had normal cognitive function at the time of birth, there is no denying that Genie turned into a “highly abnormal adult” (Harris & Pinker 2009: 147). We will never know whether her subsequent retardation was a result of her traumatic upbringing or if she was born with an initial problem from birth. Like similar cases (such as Victor the Wild Child of Aveyron), this raises the issue of how reliable the study really is as the brain capacity of these individuals differs from someone who would have a normal upbringing with a normal brain capacity. Rolls (2015: 131) discusses many of the methodological problems with Genie’s case and suggests her lack of interaction and social development was inevitable given her circumstances. It is unlikely you would find someone who had a normal upbringing with a normal brain capacity that wasn’t exposed to any language, so although this could be as close as we could ever get, it is still not considered reliable data for many people.

Fortunately there aren’t many cases like Genie, but the results from studying her have coincided with similar studies in the past. Her quick discovery and swift arrest of her father meant that scientists were eager to study her every move. Benzaquen describes this as, “for people in general, Genie was an object of pity; for the scientists, she was an object of knowledge” (2006: 245). Although Genie was a great case to study, many people who cared for her failed her and this is something we have to consider when thinking about the validity of the results. Her care is another issue that people have used to challenge the validity of her study because Genie was constantly moved to and from different people and even moved back to the house where the abuse took place. There was confusion about the funding behind her study which meant she was constantly being moved between specialists who all wanted to learn from her. Rolls provides a detailed account of Genie’s story and describes it as a “catalogue of unfortunate or misguided mistakes” (2015: 132), leaving us to consider the ethics of Genie’s case and as a result of this, if we can even take anything from it at all.

The ethics behind this study mean that it could never be recreated, as abuse of a child is involved. Due to this, Genie’s case is the closest we are ever going to get to a child being brought up in these circumstances. Although there were many mistakes made, within her case the chances something like this happening again are extremely rare. Due to this we may have to accept that though the study may not have been completely ethical or carried out how we would do now, the results are the closest thing we will ever get to studying a child that has never been exposed to language.

 BETHAN WINNER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Benzaquen, A. (2006) Encounters with Wild Children: Temptation and Disappointment in the History of Human Sciences. Canada: McGill-Queens University Press.

Dowling, J. (2004) The Great Brain Debate. Nature or Nurture? USA: Joseph Henry Press.

Harris, J. R and Pinker, S. (2009) The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. United States: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group.

Rolls, G. (2015) Classic Case Studies in Psychology: Third Edition. United Kingdom: Routledge.

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This entry was posted in Language Acquisition: the nature / nurture debate and tagged Dr Matt Davies, English Language, Genie Wiley, Language Debates, language innateness, the language instinct, university of chester.
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