Case Studies

The Boy Who Was Raised by Wolves, Part II

In which Victor is introduced to society

When we last saw Victor, he was scared and bewildered in an institution for deaf and mute children. After two years of this unfit environment, a young physician named Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard who worked with deaf children requested to take care of Victor in order to teach this “wild child” how to communicate.

From the 1970 film, The Wild Child

Victor’s inability to comprehend new words or produce new sounds turned out to be crucial evidence for the role of nurture in human development, which was contradictory to the contemporary belief that intelligence, personality, and skills were determined entirely by nature. Not only was this a vital revelation for science, but it led to the discovery of what we now refer to as the “critical periods of language development.”

The flexible nature of a newborn’s cognitive development allows him to learn any and all languages he’s exposed to, but if he isn’t using a particular sound, his brain will toss it as it determines what information it will need later. Once a baby begins learning his first words just before he finishes his first year, he gets better at the sounds he hears and repeats a lot, but he will only repeat them if he gets reinforcement from other people. As he repeats it, the phoneme sounds increasingly clearer until he’s fluent. This does mean, by the way, that you can easily teach your baby a language you do not know or pronounce well. He’ll pick it up from videos, songs, or other adults, but careful about sitting him in front of a screen: this takes away the reinforcement aspect, rendering the whole thing practically useless once his brain starts trimming away unused phonemes. The study below shows infants under 10 months old differentiating between sounds that you won’t be able to distinguish unless you grew up speaking Hindi. Note how the 12-month-olds react when presented with the same test.

A study at the University of British Columbia to determine whether infants can distinguish phonemes in Hindi

So what about the 12-month-old? Has she already lost her chance to be fluent in a second language? A child in grade school who wants to learn Spanish for the first time will have to relearn how to roll her Rs and stop using her teeth when she says Vs, but she will still have the potential to re-learn them well enough to sound native. The double-edged sword here is that a child who was fluently bilingual as a baby can completely forget one of the languages by adolescence, phonemes and all, if it’s not reinforced along with the language spoken by her peers, which will automatically become her native language. And no pressure, but this is her last chance to ever sound native at a second language. The more languages she speaks before she hits adolescence, the better she will be at learning new languages even after passing the final critical period of language development at puberty.

If she didn’t learn even a single language before puberty, though, she will never be able to verbally communicate at all. Victor, who was around 14 by the time he met Itard, only ever learned to spell the French words for “milk” and “Oh God.” He never learned to verbally communicate besides the animalistic growls and yips he learned during his early life in the woods, which other humans were never able to mimic quite right.

Below is a fairly comprehensive overview of how babies acquire language-specific sounds:

Without the exposure to language until after he had begun puberty, Victor never even learned to differentiate tones of voice. He learned to be wary around the stern Itard more than the kindly, gentle housekeeper because Victor had no ability to understand when he was frustrating Itard; for most kids, we didn’t need to hear what words our mother was actually saying to understand that we better not keep doing that or we’d be in trouble, but Victor didn’t know how to pick up on the clues we learned as babies.

Feral children in the modern world

Another famous feral child is Genie, who was not raised by wolves but trapped in a dark room until she was nearly 14 – the same age at which Victor met Itard. Her monstrous father severely isolated and neglected her to the point that no one outside the family even knew she existed despite living in the middle of 1960s Los Angeles.
After she was finally discovered, she was eventually able to comprehend considerably more language and basic concepts (like shapes and colors) than Victor and even learned to speak, though with a heavy affect and poor grammar; she never got the hang of pronouns, for instance. The theory behind her limited but unexpected success at learning to communicate is that her mother or, more likely, her brother spoke to her at least occasionally when they were sent by her father to feed her.
Even if this isn’t the case, having been physically near humans at all afforded her the opportunity to hear voices through the walls. Early exposure to language is so crucial that her brain took these rare, distorted speech samples and saved them for her to use one day in constructing a basic foundation for verbal communication.

Itard’s success

Itard had failed to teach the Wild Child of Aveyron to speak, inviting mockery from his neighbors and colleagues for believing he could teach a child that amounted to little more than a beast in their eyes. The impact of his work with Victor would not be fully appreciated for many years, though it is fair to say that Itard was a bit harsh on himself and on Victor. Nevertheless, after two or three years without the desired success, he left Victor with Madame Guérin and went on to continue his previous work with deaf children.

Later in life, he published an enormous study compiling his work with over 170 cases of hearing-impaired patients, invented what is still known as Itard’s catheter, and documented the first case of Tourette’s in a noblewoman. Itard eventually became known as the father of “oral education of the deaf; the field of otolaryngology; the use of behavior modification with severely impaired children; and special education for the mentally and physically handicapped” (Carrey 34).

He is also recognized by linguists as one of the early, unwitting founders of the psycholinguistic theories of critical periods, the effect of nurture on language acquisition, and universal language (which is a-whole-nother post in and of itself).

It’s important to note, despite professors of linguistics so often leaving this out of their lectures and Itard’s own dismissal of its importance, that Victor was able learn empathy and form healthy attachments to trusted adults, which was quite the surprise given his other challenges and the then-popular (and very false) assumption that language = human.

Victor turned out to be a remarkably affectionate, friendly boy who was curious about other people and enjoyed interacting with them after his initial hesitance dissipated, despite the general opinion that he was a base animal with no potential to be considered human in any meaningful way or, at the very least, so mentally challenged that he was not worth teaching or even caring for.

Itard’s account of discovering Victor’s humanity is one of my all-time favorite stories:

At the Institute for Deaf-Mutes, Victor had isolated himself from other people entirely unless he was hungry, but after just a short time of being well cared for in a nurturing home environment, he began to express shame at upsetting his two new family members and pleasure when they returned from shopping or visiting a friend. He waved to neighbors and enjoyed playing with the local children, particularly younger ones who didn’t seem bothered by Victor’s differences.
He would occasionally run away for short periods of time, but that stopped after he returned from a two-week absence. When he came back that time (again of his own volition), he wept deeply at seeing Guérin, whether from guilt, joy, or both, we can’t be certain. Unable to decipher social cues or verbal tones, he was wary about his reunion with the stern Itard and hesitated to greet him, thinking he might be angry about the extended vacation. Eventually, he must have gathered that Itard was more relieved than angry, or perhaps his relief to be home won over his fear of Itard’s temper, because he burst back into tears and ran to Itard’s waiting arms for a welcome hug.
The most poignant example of Victor’s newfound empathy was observed shortly after the death of Guérin’s husband, who had been something of a handyman around the house. Victor had gradually been taught how to perform various household chores, including setting the dishes for meals. Following the steps of his daily routine, he placed the usual four plates on the dinner table. Guérin was immediately and visibly upset, trying unsuccessfully to hold back tears. Victor silently took away the place setting and walked over to embrace Guérin. He never put the fourth plate on the table again.

Part 3: Making the case for Victor being raised by wolves


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