A Case Analysis on Nell’s Language Acquisition

This article is a case analysis on how a language can be acquired and what language theories can explain it.

Nell’s case is quite peculiar as the movie depicted it. She had developed her own impenetrable language. Some of the words listed and interpreted by Paula Olson, a hot-shot city psychologist are the following:

spee – speakga-inja – guardian angel
af or afa – afterfelises – happy
kay – crybin – been
fearly – afraidafi – don’t
reckontata – (if she was scared)
chikabeetee in a wind – tree in a wind

From Nell’s utterances that Ms. Olson gathered and interpreted, she concluded that she spoke English.

Since this article aims to zero in on language acquisition, let me discuss some contradicting theories and experiments in order to explain language acquisition. I will explain how Nell spoke such language, and later speak English as the way native speakers do.

The Language Acquisition Theories

Yule (1996) described two experiments to find out how language originates. Here is the first experiment conducted in Egypt.

An Egyptian pharaoh named Psammetichus conducted an experiment with two newborn infants around 600BC. The infants had a mute shepherd as their only human companion for two years. The goats’ bleat or wavering cry was the only thing they heard. After a while, the children were reported to have spontaneously uttered some words, not an Egyptian, but something Phrygian (Indo-European language). It’s the word “bekos” meaning bread. But if one will drop the ‘kos’- ending, it could approximate the sound of the goats’ “beeeh”.

Meanwhile, James IV of Scotland conducted the same experiment in AD1500. The children were reported to have started speaking Hebrew; but when they lived without access to human speech in their early years, they grew up with no language at all.

Interpretation of the Language Experiments

Using the lessons derived from the first experiment, I could explain why Nell had such kind of language. She imitated the words uttered by her mother who was then suffering from stroke. When the mother died, she became alone, wild and unsocialized. Nevertheless, what really amazed me is – why Nell learned to speak English at the end of the movie. Although I heard only the sentence “remember that,” I already assumed that she learned it well.

According to the article, “How Did You Learn to Speak Your Native Language?” I got from the net, there is a critical period (2-7 years) wherein children can master a language. If this is true, any child not hearing language during this period not only will not learn to speak but also will not be able to learn to speak. Two evidences intensify this claim.

The first bit of evidence comes from Victor, the so-called Wild Boy of Aveyron. Victor is the name given to a boy found roaming the woods of Aveyron in southern France toward the end of September 1799. He behaved like a wild animal and gave all indications that wild animals had raised him: eating off the floor, making canine noises, disliking baths and clothes. He also could not speak. Doctor Jean Marc Itard, who had developed a reputation for teaching the deaf to speak, took him in. After years of work, however, Itard failed to teach Victor to more than a few lexemes or words that have meaning.

A similar event unfolded in Los Angeles in 1961 when a 13-year-old girl was discovered who had been isolated in a baby crib most of her life and never spoken to. She was physically immature, had difficulty walking and could not speak. Psychologists at UCLA spent years trying to teach ‘Genie’, as they called her to protect her identity, to speak. While Genie did get to the point that she could communicate, her speech never advanced beyond the point where the language explosion in normal children begins. In other words, she could use words to the same extent as chimpanzees but could not manipulate grammar, as indicated in the prefixes, suffixes and ‘function’ words she used. At middle age, she stopped talking altogether and was soon committed to a mental institution.

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2 thoughts on “A Case Analysis on Nell’s Language Acquisition”

  1. I am much touched by how you explain things to make it simple to the understanding of us all. I appreciate your effort. keep it up

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