Nature v nurture: Is the Genie Wiley study a reliable source for the language acquisition debate? BETHAN WINNER explores the case

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.


One thought on “Nature v nurture: Is the Genie Wiley study a reliable source for the language acquisition debate? BETHAN WINNER explores the case

  1. Christin Kluge says:

    Bethan, I like that you focused your argument on one case study, and therefore gave a detailed account on the Genie Wiley case. As you pointed out, this happened 45 years ago. Do you think, that if something similar happened today, scientist would be able to handle it better? Even to this point it is unclear if Genie’s brain was damaged or ordinary developed. Personally, I feel that the way Genie was treated after her release was everything but ideal, specifically for her and also for the research.
    You propose that the existing studies on Genie of the past years did not prove anything. This makes it sound like we are in a dead end of the debate until further input is available. Hopefully, there will never be a child again that is neglected like Genie. However, this means there will be no progress in finding out whether acquiring language is a natural or nurtured process. Do you think the case failed to prove anything on the debate? Also, do you have an idea how to survey this without analysing neglected children?
    It will be interesting to see how scientists proceed in the following years so there will be new input on this ever ongoing debate.

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