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Critical Analysis on Genie’s Story: Chomsky and Skinner's Theories

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Genie was strapped to a potty chair and neglected by her father. Her father kept her and her mother in a ‘protective custody’ where they were ‘virtual prisoners’ to his gross interpretation of a habitable and nurturing environment. Consequently, Genie grew up, neglected and socially isolated. As demonstrated in the film, Genie’s remarkable case provided valuable evidence for psychological theories concerning the acquisition of language.

Psychological Damage Occurring from Isolation on Children

Isolation on young children has devastating effects on social function including communication skills that are massively diminished and usually not retrievable. Academically feral children are usually unable to perform at normal standards making them mentally handicapped. These effects make it hard if not impossible for them to adapt to normal life. Genie was beginning to cope with her developmental problems, and forming basic communication and social skills when her treatment was suddenly stopped. Stopping her treatment led to a sudden spiral downwards back to her state before she began treatment.

Developmental Problems Associated with Isolation in Children

Language development is affected greatly with isolation. If the child is unable to hear and learn proper conversations by a young age usually somewhere around 5 they may never fully develop proper communication skills. Social problems caused by isolation are because of language barriers, social cues that have never been taught, and the inability to communicate feelings or emotions.


Her case attracted psychologists who were interested in finding out whether she could still learn to speak. At the time, some linguists, led by MIT’S Noam Chomsky, believed that human speech is a genetically programmed ability, when he was discovered at age eleven, he had already outgrown the critical age for acquiring language. Passing through puberty is theorized to extinguish the ability to develop language skills Eric Lenneberg, a neuropsychologist, agreed with Chomsky and added further that if a person did not learn to speak by adolescence, then the natural ability to learn language might be lost forever. This theory was the so-called ‘critical period hypothesis.’

Skinner provided an alternate approach to the concept of human malleability in ‘verbal behavior’ that is more aligned with the nurture argument. His theory is important to consider in light of Genie because her childhood environment played a significant role in her development that wasn’t entirely elucidated with Chomsky’s theory. Skinner argued that in order for a child’s language ability to develop, they must be taught and exposed to all aspects of language from a young age. He also aligned himself with the idea of a critical period for language acquisition. He proposed that children acquire language through the principles of conditioning, which include association, imitation, and reinforcement, within a limited time period. Because Genie was never taught or exposed to environmental stimulation, her story provides evidence for Skinner’s theory. Genie was not exposed to speech in her environment. 

Genie and Language Acquisition

One year after Genie had been rescued, her language ability was equal to that of a two year old child. She had the ability to distinguish between types of nouns and between positive and negative sentences. She could form sentences with up to three words. Around the age of two is when psychologically healthy children will experience a sudden burst of vocabulary knowledge. Unfortunately, Genie did not make this advancement.

In Chomsky’s view, Genie was unable to use ‘movement”, the ability to reorganize a declarative sentence. Her ultimate inability to move in to later stages of language development strongly supported Chomsky and Lenneberg’s hypotheses involving the critical period of acquisition.

Although Genie’s situation was one that scientists would never create intentionally to test their theories, her unfortunate circumstances made her a prime candidate for experimentation. Genie was past puberty. If she could still learn language, it would cast doubt on the critical period hypothesis. Ultimately, Genie’s caretakers were criticized for combining their research with her treatment.

Learning through Reinforcement

Genie had never been exposed to language properly, she was unable to produce it properly. She had never been positively reinforced to establish the value behind words and phrases. However, when Susan Curtiss trained. Genie in the fundamentals of linguistics, Genie was positively reinforced in her learning and, therefore, able to make advancements. Genie showed progress when she exhibited the association of emotions with facial expressions. She expressed sadness when her original doctor, Dr. James Kent, would leave their visits

Genie was able to learn some language by imitating her environment, forming associations, and being appropriately reinforced by her caretakers. She even grew to show signs of pre-operational Piagean cognition and Vygotsky’s concept of self-awareness by actively seeking definitions for objects and attempting to break from her egocentrism. Her speech had improved dramatically in both quality and quantity, and Curtiss acknowledged this striking change. She was also able to verbalize events from her past, an impressive feat. Unfortunately, she was unable to reach full development because she was ‘deprived and largely isolated’ during her critical period.

Chomsky and Skinner’s theories regarding language acquisition were largely based on abstract ideas, and were not substantially supported by data or scientific experiments. Because of this, neither theoretical standpoint has been accepted in totality. It would be possible to effectively test their ideas if case studies of ‘wild children’ could be isolated, dissected into categories (of environment, age, ability, experience of puberty, etc.), and compared experimentally. However, socially isolated children do not ’emerge frequently, so the chance of this occurring randomly is extremely low. Similarly, if a scientist were to produce the proper conditions for experimentation, it would undoubtedly be the product of unethical procedure.

Because the concept of language acquisition is multifaceted and includes the interconnected complexities of environmental interactions and progressive neural structure advances, it is impossible to validate either theory. If ethics were negligible, tests could be performed on subjects that were ‘lab raised’ to meet particular conditions. For example, manipulating the subject’s environment may indicate whether or not specific instruction is pertinent in language acquisition (Skinner would say yes and Chomsky would disagree). Manipulation of environmental interaction, availability of language instruction, and social interactions in various subjects across various ages between infancy and adolescence could produce specific data to reveal the exact mechanisms behind critical language development and the factors that influence its formation. 


In the case of Genie when she was rescued her age were eleven, she don’t have any exposure to the ‘Nurture’ includes such factors as upbringing, training, and education. Her speech development is not perfect, but she can utter the most things she wants to because she have learned some language by imitating her environment, forming associations, and being appropriately reinforced by her caretakers. Dramatically changes occurred in her beginning of her treatment because she had acquired semantic ability, but remained unable to learn syntax. This shows that she was unable to learn how to form a proper sentence, her mental growth were stopped she was unable to acquire further language. I am agree with the theory of Eric Lenneberg that a person can acquire a language before adolescence they learned how to form a syntax but in case of Genie she had already outgrown the critical age for acquiring language. This also shows that she had any abnormality in brain, abnormal brain waved pattern was recorded in her sleep spindles, may be here brain was damaged due to abuse. Genie missed her most sensitive periods for functional development. Fortunately, for Genie language and motor acquisition can still be learned but at a slower pace than most 13 year olds. There is hope that Genie will be able to function as a normal individual, but that day is somewhere down the road. The critical and sensitive periods indicate the ideal time frame for language and motor development, after which further development becomes more difficult and effortful to acquire.

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Critical Analysis on Genie’s Story: Chomsky and Skinner’s Theories. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 1, 2022, from
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