On royal curiosity and language deprivation experiments
August 4, 2008 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Frederick...made linguistic experiments on the vile bodies of hapless infants, "bidding foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no wise to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which had been the first), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments."

Emperor Frederick II was not alone in his curiosity on this score: Both Psammetichus I (664-610 BCE) and James V (1513-1542 CE) also organized their own versions of the experiment. We tend to think of such research as having been abandoned wholesale by the time of the 20th century, though there have been cases of “feral children”, even very recently. (And other, similarly cruel experiments have been performed, for example, in an attempt to discover the source of stuttering.) Yet the grandiose questions about language that perplexed both the royal “scientists” organizing such experiments as well as the more contemporary scientists studying feral children, remain largely unanswered. This indicates to some that "the forbidden experiment may belong to a...group of experimental problems that persistently seem meaningful but are not."
posted by voltairemodern (27 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Nice post, very interesting stuff. Some of these investigations may rest on incoherent distinctions as suggested in that last piece, but the ones done by Psammetichus and other kings seem like valid (though ethically repugnant) experiments in principle, don't they?
posted by Phanx at 8:46 AM on August 4, 2008

"He was a comely man, and we formed,"

That's presumably "well formed"?
posted by orthogonality at 8:48 AM on August 4, 2008

First in with Pinker and deaf children
posted by DU at 8:50 AM on August 4, 2008

Deaf children, raised together, will create their own sign-language; it's only in the second generation that it acquires a regular grammar. This is similar to the progression from a pidgin language, with words butt no set grammar, created when groups of different tongues labor or are enslaved together, becoming in the second generation a creole, a new language with a grammar.
posted by orthogonality at 8:58 AM on August 4, 2008

Crap, beaten by DU, again.
posted by orthogonality at 8:58 AM on August 4, 2008

It isn't King Frederick II, it is Emperor Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire. King Frederick II was King of Prussia. He was also interested in science, literature and learning, but was not known for cruelty to children. Emperor Frederick lived some 5 centuries before King Frederick who was great friends with Voltaire.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:13 AM on August 4, 2008 [4 favorites]

Thanks for this; I was reading the heartbreaking Tampa article, saw the Frederick reference and wanted to learn more.
posted by kimota at 9:16 AM on August 4, 2008

For anyone interested, there was an AskMe about this a little while ago. It has some excellent links as well.
posted by Demogorgon at 9:43 AM on August 4, 2008

that article from tampa about the girl danielle was one of the most heart wrenching things i've ever read. I got so violently angry at the girl's birth mother, and then I read she has an iq of 77, and it's like "what the fuck can you do?"
posted by shmegegge at 9:50 AM on August 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

It seems to me that thanks to television we're performing a variation of this experiment right now. Television speaks at you but doesn't interact or act on your feedback, so there is no reinforcing or correcting loop. Can infants learn to speak with only speech coming at them?

Perhaps not. In the UK a recent report found that "over 89,000 school-aged children have speech and language difficulties as their primary special educational needs."
posted by alasdair at 9:56 AM on August 4, 2008

shmegegge writes "then I read she has an iq of 77, and it's like 'what the fuck can you do?'"

Mr. Justice Holmes, declaring "three generations of imbeciles are enough", had a worse solution: compulsory sterilization, practiced in the US as late as the 1970s.
posted by orthogonality at 9:58 AM on August 4, 2008

"He was a comely man, and we formed,"

That's presumably "well formed"?

Incorrect. It's just that this quote has be truncated from the original through a series of scribe misunderstandings and mistranslations. The original quote read: "He was a comely man, and we formed...like voltron."
posted by milarepa at 9:58 AM on August 4, 2008 [5 favorites]

Great topic for a post. I was talking about Emperor Frederick's little experiment on "the vile bodies of hapless infants" with someone just the other day. I didn't know about the other experiments he conducted that are mentioned in the linked piece. Very funny and cruel. I particularly like the one in which he tried to trick the astronomer. Cruelty aside, it seems like he had a nascent understanding of the scientific method.

The Boston Review piece by Rebecca Saxe is very good. She's one of the best and most interesting academics in any field around.

The question "would a group of babies left alone on a desert island acquire a language?" has been asked on AskMe before, and I always remember and want to link to an online article I read somewhere that asked the same question to a whole bunch of scientists. I seem to remember it had healthy doses of both yeses and noes. Unfortunately, I don't know where I saw it and google searches come up empty. Does anyone know the piece I'm talking about? It might have been on edge.org, but I can't locate it there.
posted by painquale at 10:02 AM on August 4, 2008

(Oops! Thanks Ironmouth. Unfortunate error on my part, I had King Frederick II on my mind due to some research I'd been doing. I sent a mod request to fix it.)
posted by voltairemodern at 10:11 AM on August 4, 2008

Television speaks at you ... Can infants learn to speak with only speech coming at them?

According to the studies in this book, it depends on which show you are watching. Some shows have a tremendous impact on language and behavior, others, including some considered to be the best preschool children's programming have little, or worse, negative, impact.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:28 AM on August 4, 2008

Can infants learn to speak with only speech coming at them?

The answer seems to be yes and no. Yes, that's how they do it. Parental correction (explicit correction, that is) has little to no effect on language acquisition. But if you mean speech from tv, then no; they acquire what they hear in the "child-directed" speech stream. And what they're attuned to lines up rather well with how we change our speech when talking to babies and very young children: higher-pitched voice, simplified sentence structure, and repetition.
posted by tractorfeed at 10:32 AM on August 4, 2008

it depends on which show you are watching

In answer to the question of whether infants can acquire language with only speech from a television, the answer is no, regardless of the program. Spending a lot of time in front of a television almost certainly is correlated with certain aspects of language and behavior, although correlation is not causation. Spending a lot of time in front of a television means spending less time interacting with another human, and that is how children acquire language. From the linked book:

"Developmental psychologists and cognitive scientists are starting to discover just how much a person requires real, person-to-person contact to learn language. This interaction is something that televisions, DVDs or even interactive computer programs cannot replicate."

Interaction with other humans is required for the development of all kinds of behavior, not just language, which is why these cases are so sad.
posted by tractorfeed at 10:49 AM on August 4, 2008

The Scots King the story was originally told about was James IV, not James V (who probably wouldn't have given a hoot about experimentation). The story is that James IV left two babies with a mute woman on the island of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth and that according to some sources they grew up speaking good Hebrew. But alas, the source for it is the often-unreliable history, Lindesay of Pitscottie's The Histories and Chronicles of Scotland (which is a much later source too - written long after James's death). The tale was later popularised by Walter Scott's Tales of a Grandfather. So sadly, this is the medieval equivalent of an urban myth, or given its setting maybe that should be an insular myth!

Given that both Emperor Frederick and James IV were noted for their interest in classical learning, the likely origin for this folktale is the Psammetichus story in Herodotus being adapted to suit. There's also a smack of anti-science propaganda about it in its later use- 'You see what this new learning leads to - won't someone think of the children!"
posted by Flitcraft at 12:26 PM on August 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Ya know...

That Tampa story made me think...

There's definitely not too much love in that home! I bet that she'll do a great job at writing English essays for her future college professors...

posted by gregvr at 12:39 PM on August 4, 2008

Crap, beaten by DU, again.

No, ortho, you actually explained what you were talking about. DU merely referenced it to prove he was aware of it, not actually adding anything to the conversation: a minor variation on "FRisT psOT!!11!" at best.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:23 PM on August 4, 2008

Apropos of the concept of "two generations to a new language": Nicaraguan sign language was spontaneously developed by two generations of deaf children in Nicaragua as a result of government-run deaf schools opening for kids across the country. The first generation developed a gestural pidgin, and the next generation elaborated a grammar.
posted by adoarns at 3:04 PM on August 4, 2008

Paul Auster's "City of Glass" discusses this as a central theme. The graphic novel version is excellent an a surreal quick read.
posted by shavenwarthog at 3:24 PM on August 4, 2008

they acquire what they hear in the "child-directed" speech stream.
I'm no language acquisition expert, but my understanding is that child-directed speech is neither sufficient nor necessary for language acquisition. I can't find a relevant reference, but I recall seeing a linguistic-y documentary wherein an African culture was shown to pretty much not speak directly to young children at all (though they did spend a silly [from an American perspective] amount of time 'teaching' very young children to sit up, something that, much like acquiring language, kids will do on their own in a typical environment if not actively prevented from doing so).
And what they're attuned to lines up rather well with how we change our speech when talking to babies and very young children: higher-pitched voice, simplified sentence structure, and repetition.
It's also my understanding that the fundamental frequency doesn't simply go up in child-directed speech. Rather, it varies over a wider range than in normal speech.
posted by noahpoah at 6:09 PM on August 4, 2008

Well, the formatting there looks much worse than it did in preview. My apologies.
posted by noahpoah at 6:09 PM on August 4, 2008

Wow, that case sounds like many that my co-author has dealt with (we co-wrote a book called The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook) and I'm actually astonished that he wasn't quoted in that story, as he's one of only two or three top experts on these children.

He believes that you need to work to provide the stimuli that the brain should have received earlier, but didn't. So, he uses massage, music and movement and other somewhat non-traditional approaches-- but because those stimuli were not received at the appropriate time, the level of repetition that is needed is far more than would be for an ordinary child so probably most of these children never get enough to discover how much they could recover, from his point of view.

They basically need the unconditional love given an infant, the rocking and soothing and nurturing and holding that most infants get pretty much any time they aren't asleep and sometimes when they are. You can imagine how hard it is to give this to a 6 or 8 year old-- and how people will tell you to stop because you are "spoiling" them or "babying" them, when that's exactly what they need, not more threat and fear.

In the title story, a boy was raised in a dog kennel from around age 9 months or so till age 5, as I recall. Probably the months of very early nurturing he had before being in the cage helped with the spectacular recovery he did make when he was found-- he turned out to be only a year behind in school when he started kindergarten.

But yeah, the language stuff is completely confounded by the neglect-- and since the cortex is a region that develops later than the emotional/stress regions, it's actually not the thing you have to worry about most. You can get lots of linguistic input in fast by talking to someone and it's always appropriate to talk to a child-- but you can't get lots of emotional nurturing and rocking and rhythm in that well to older kids and that stuff is needed for the important stuff in life, like connecting to others and caring about them.
posted by Maias at 7:30 PM on August 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

The Tampa Bay incident mentioned above and in its own deleted post is not that unusual; one feral child? Try eleven.
posted by TedW at 6:08 PM on August 5, 2008

Those aren't necessarily feral children-- it doesn't say if they can speak or not. They are clearly severely neglected-- but if severe neglect was all it took, we'd have hundreds of thousands of them and thankfully, we don't. Severe neglect has many horrific consequences-- ranging from all types of mental illness to sociopathy-- but for a child to be considered feral, he or she needs to have been raised so neglectfully that language has not been learned as well as other social interaction skills.
posted by Maias at 6:23 PM on August 5, 2008

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