A Case Analysis of Nell’s Language Acquisition

This article is a case analysis of 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 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.

Source: xkcd.com

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 cannot 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 got to where 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 stated in the prefixes, suffixes and ‘function’ words she used. At middle age, she stopped talking altogether and was soon committed to a mental institution.

However, Nell’s language acquisition was quite different from Victor and Genie because she learned to speak English well.

Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition can explain how Nell acquired the language. I will discuss three of Krashen’s hypotheses in the next section that can help explain Nell’s situation.

Krashen’s Theory of Language Acquisition

Stephen Krashen from the University of Southern California is an expert in Linguistics, specializing in theories of language acquisition and development. His theory of second language acquisition comprises five main hypotheses:

  1. the Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis,
  2. the Monitor Hypothesis,
  3. the Natural Order Hypothesis,
  4. the Input Hypothesis,
  5. and the Affective Filter Hypothesis

The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis

According to Krashen, there are two independent systems of second language performance: ‘the acquired system’ and ‘the learned system’. The ‘acquired system’ oracquisition‘ is the product of a subconscious process very similar to the process children undergo when they acquire their first language. It requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are concentrated not in the form of their utterances, but in the communicative act.

On the other hand, the ‘learned system’ or ‘learning’ is the product of formal instruction and it comprises a conscious process which results in conscious knowledge ‘about’ the language, such as knowledge of grammar rules. According to Krashen, ‘learning’ is less important than ‘acquisition’.

Input Hypothesis

Krashen attempts to explain how the learner acquires a second language. In other words, Input Hypothesis is Krashen’s explanation of how second language acquisition takes place.

Thus, the Input Hypothesis is only concerned with ‘acquisition’, not ‘learning’. According to this hypothesis, the learner improves and progresses along the ‘natural order’ when he/she receives second language ‘input’ that is one step beyond his/her current stage of linguistic competence.

I think, Nell learned language through acquisition and not learning because the movie did not show that she underwent a formal schooling in order to learn language. The movie shows how she interacted with other human beings, especially her friends in the natural form of communication. Nobody taught her the rudiments of grammar.

A Case Analysis of Nell’s Language Acquisition 1
Source: xkcd.com

Further, the input hypothesis might be also true to Nell’s case because she needs to be exposed to comprehensible input.

In the movie, Dr. Jerome Lovell tried to go down to Nell’s level by imitating her or uttering some words which she was familiar with and, from that, they could communicate with each other. As time passed by, Nell and Jerome, or even Paula, understood each other up to the time that Nell spoke the way her friends did.

Affective Filter Hypothesis

The Affective Filter Hypothesis explains why Nell did not want to speak when she was brought to the hospital. According to this hypothesis, a number of ‘affective variables‘ play a facilitative, but non-causal, role in second language acquisition. These variables include motivation, self-confidence and anxiety.

Krashen claims that learners with prime motivation, self-confidence, a good self-image, and a low level of anxiety are better equipped for success in second language acquisition. Low motivation, low self-esteem, and debilitating anxiety can combine to ‘raise’ the affective filter and form a ‘mental block’ that prevents comprehensible input from being used for acquisition.

In other words, when the filter is ‘up’ it impedes language acquisition. Thus, Nell institutionalized and acquired language well when she was in the right environment, i.e., together with people whom she loved and trusted.

Moreover, language acquisition theories have basically centered around “nurture” and “nature” distinction or on “empiricism” and “nativism”. The doctrine of empiricism holds that all knowledge comes from experience, ultimately from our interaction with the environment through our reasoning or senses. Empiricism, in this sense, can be contrasted with nativism, which holds that at least some knowledge is not acquired through interaction with the environment, but is genetically transmitted and innate.

To put it another way, some theoreticians have based their theories on environmental factors while others believed that it is the innate factors that determine the acquisition of language (Kiymazarslan, 2002).

Kiymazarslan goes on to say that “environmentalist theories of language acquisition hold that an organism’s nurture, or experience, are of more significance to development than its nature or inborn contributions. Yet they do not completely reject the innate factors.”

On the other hand, assert that much of the capacity for language learning in human is ‘innate’. It is part of the genetic makeup of human species and is nearly independent of any particular experience which may occur after birth.

Thus, the nativists claim that language acquisition is innately determined and that we are born with a built-in device which predisposes us to acquire language.

Apparently, Nell’s case is more on nurture rather than nature. However, it does not connote that we should view language as the way Nell acquired a language. This calls for more intensive research to widen our perception of language acquisition and learning.


  1. Dr. Goodword’s Office (n.d.). Mama teached me talk. Retrieved, October 6, 2014, from  http://www.alphadictionary.com/articles/ling001.html
  2. Kiymazarlan, V. (2002). A Discussion of Language Acquisition Theories. Retrieved October 6, 2014 from http://naturalway.awardspace.com/articles/article006.htm
  3. Ricardo Schütz, R. (2014). Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition. Retrieved October 6, 2014, from http://www.sk.com.br/sk-krash.html

© 2014 October 6 M. G. Alvior; updated June 16, 2022