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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The truth about feral children

Imagine coming across a young boy who grazes and bleats like a sheep, or a little girl who runs and howls in the exact same manner as a wolf. They speak no known human language, and they lack any normal human social skills. Stories of children raised by animals have been around since ancient times. There was even a rumor that the founders of the great Roman civilization, Romulus and Remus, were raised by a “she-wolf.”

Of course, there’s no real verification regarding how the founders of Rome were actually raised.

Other rumors of feral children circulated during the age of imperialism, fascinating those who listened and believed. In fact, one of the most popular stories imperialist British soldiers brought back from India were stories of young children raised by wolves, such as “The Jungle Books.”

These rumors of Indian wolf-children were verified in 1920, when young female twins were found amongst wolves.

However, reports of feral children date further back than the colonization of India. One of the earliest reports, from the 14th century, is a story of a Hessian wolf-child found in 1341.

The first scientific study of feral children took place at the turn of the 19th century in France. On Jan. 8, 1800 a boy came out of the forest. He was nude, covered in scars and couldn’t speak a word of French.

The boy, christened Victor of Aveyron, was brought to the National Institute for the Deaf, where medical student Jean Marc Gaspard Itard hoped to study the boy.

Itard attempted to teach the wild child and turn him into a civilized boy. Victor learned to understand spoken language, how to empathize with other humans, and read simple words.
When it came to speaking though, Victor learned two words, ‘lait’ and ‘oh dieu’, the French words for ‘milk’ and ‘oh god.’ Itard soon became frustrated with the lack of progression and gave up.

Itard wrote of Victor after giving up on him, “Finally seeing that the continuation of my efforts and the passing of time brought about no change, I resigned myself to the necessity of giving up any attempt to produce speech, and abandoned my pupil to incurable dumbness.”

Teaching feral children to speak has proven to be a difficult task for those who, in rare cases, are given the chance undertake it.

The critical period hypothesis explains that it’s difficult to teach feral children to speak because they frequently miss out on learning human languages during early years of their life, the most critical time for language development.

With limited or no human contact, no language is learned during this critical period, and feral children lose the ability to learn anything more than a few words. More often then not, they are completely lost when it comes to grammar.

Just because these children do not speak as well as other human beings does not make them any less communicative.
One example of this is Genie. In 1970, social workers found 13-year old Genie. The girl had lived almost all of her life in severe confinement. During the day she was strapped to a potty chair and at night she was locked in a cage.

Along with suffering from bizarre, violent and anti-social behavior, Genie could not speak. She was taught by Jean Butler who taught the girl how to express her rage through stomping her feet as opposed to acting out violently.

Genie soon began to work with Marilyn Rigler, who taught her to speak. However, Genie experienced limitations. Russ Rymer, in his book “Genie: A Scientific Tragedy,” wrote of Genie’s communication skills.

“She was a very communicative person. But, despite trying, she never mastered the rules of grammar, never could use the little pieces – the word endings, for instance,” Rymer wrote. “She had a clear semantic ability, but could not learn syntax.”

Lacking basic language skills aren’t the only things that feral children experience. Collectively, feral children also lack human social skills. They lack the ability to empathize, and seem imperious to many things which humans raised amongst their kin are conditioned to experience, such as hot and cold and various types of weather.

Though many feral children lack any language skills when they are found, they often have better developed senses of smell, hearing and night vision.

Many of these children, raised by wild animals, have adapted to their feral and human surroundings, taking on the characteristics of their surrogate families. This willingness to adapt represents a basic human trait. Feral children embody our human need to survive.

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