Language Development in Genie Wiley’s Case

The nature-nurture debate has been a growing controversy in the field of linguistics before the discovery of Genie Wiley’s case. As a child who has been isolated and did not communicate with anyone during her upbringing, she was an ideal case for exploring the role of heredity and environment in language acquisition. The case of Genie taught me that while nature enables children to start learning a language, it has to be aided by other environmental factors.

As per the researchers who argue that nurture plays a crucial role in language acquisition, imitation, reinforcement, and shaping constitute the major learning stages that Genie has missed out on. For instance, Rathus (2016) argues that for children to develop efficient language skills, they have to have the ability to imitate their caregivers. In the case of Genie, no language role model was available: the girl did not experience any communication and was raised “in complete isolation for 12 years,” which gave her no examples to imitate (TLC Documentary, 2013, 4:50). Reinforcement is another essential step of language development that pertains to Skinner’s theory of language. According to Rathus (2016), the process of shaping, or parents encouraging their children to voice babbling that is “progressively closer to real words,” eventually results in acceleration of children’s language acquisition (p. 106). The lack of important environmental factors in Genie’s development, therefore, helped me to link her inability to develop a more sophisticated level of language with the importance of nurture.

Nature’s side of the debate argues that language abilities in children are inborn and can be learned without any external help. Vyshedskiy, Mahapatra, and Dunn (2017) claimed that every child has an inherited ability to perceive and learn the language since social skills are some of the most important for survival. However, it is essential to note the importance of the critical period of language development, which starts during early infancy and continues until a person reaches puberty (Vyshedskiy et al., 2017). As a child who has been severely isolated during the critical period, Genie did not receive the needed assistance to enhance already inborn language skills (TLC Documentary, 2013). Therefore, when rescued, she was able to acquire some vocabulary, which is an argument for heredity, but was unable to learn syntax due to the absence of communication during the critical period. The case of Genie proved to me that while nature plays a role in language development, it has to be supplemented by nurture to develop sophisticated vocabulary and understanding of grammar.

Language Development

I learned about the three stages of language development: early vocalization, expansion of vocabulary, and syntax. At first, a child only cries and then coos, which are early indicators of speech, and then babbles in an attempt to imitate another person’s vowels, words, and intonation. Similar to other highly isolated children, Genie displayed early stages of vocalization in the form of babbling and non-verbal expression since these inborn abilities do not require external assistance to develop (Vyshedskiy et al., 2017). Vocabulary development is an aspect that Genie learned with the help of multiple researchers; thus, in this stage, she started to understand the specific meanings behind words (Vyshedskiy et al., 2017). She comprehended much more than she was able to replicate, indicating that her receptive vocabulary was more extensive than the expressive one. The same process is seen in infants before developing the ability to form sentences.

Despite Genie’s advancements in the areas of vocalization and vocabulary, the syntax was a part she struggles with, indicating its drastic differences from other stages. Unlike using abstract sounds and words to communicate simple meaning, grammar requires more brain capacity to form complex sentences. However, as Vyshedskiy et al. (2017) noted, feral children cannot comprehend and learn syntax due to their insufficient brain development. Therefore, unlike healthy children, those who grew up in isolated environments are unable to advance in language development until this stage. Difficulties in Genie’s language acquisition helped me to identify the three stages of development in healthy children.

Learning Theories

Two strategies used in educating Genie are Chomsky’s and Bandura’s learning theories. As per Chomsky’s approach, it was utilized via the phenomenon of language acquisition device (LAD), which states that humanity shares an inherent mental capacity for language and grammar (Vyshedskiy et al., 2017). Therefore, Genie was taught similar to “children of a younger age” since all people supposedly can learn despite their differences (TLC Documentary, 2013, 6:16). Bandura’s social-cognitive learning theory relies on teaching by example: Genie imitated what the researchers said in an attempt to learn the language. More specifically, at a later period of her education, she pointed to objects, and that indicated that she requested an older person to name an item (Vyshedskiy et al., 2017). When educators responded, she tried to remember and repeat the words, which showed her ability to extend vocabulary by replicating other people’s behavior.

Stages of Development


According to Piaget’s stages of development, Genie was in a sensorimotor stage. Like a child on this step of language development, she was able to express simple thoughts and rapidly advanced vocabulary by showing sensory curiosity (Vyshedskiy et al., 2017). She used most of her speech for demands and observations but never developed to a point of creating sentences with proper syntax and grammar.


As per Erikson’s development theory, Genie, at the time of her discovery, displayed characteristics of autonomy versus doubt stage. Without the ability to communicate, she struggled with being independent of her educators. A threat of doubt and shame that were cultivated in an abusive environment conflicted with her desire to be autonomous (Rathus, 2016). At a later stage of therapy, she started to showcase initiative in learning new vocabulary, which is a feature of the next step but was not able to advance further due to a lack of communication skills.


According to Kohlberg’s outlook on moral development, Genie displayed pre-conventional morality. Although she responded to conditioning and recognized the authority figures, years of neglect, and inconsistent parenting have disrupted Genie’s sense of right and wrong (Rathus, 2016). As a result, she showed instrumental-relativist orientation, which indicates that she did what was pleasant and rewarding but lacked an understanding of moral values and punishment.

Ethical Issues

I believe that the treatment of Genie was not ethical since it involved a conflict of interest due to multiple relationships with Genie and the unethical treatment of the human subject. Researchers involved in the experiment and therapy became morally attached to Genie and prioritized her well-being over conducting objective research. Their attachment is unethical according to American Psychological Association (APA, 2017) that notes that “multiple relationship could reasonably be expected to impair the psychologist’s objectivity, competence, or otherwise risks exploitation or harm to the subject” (para. 37). As a result of multiple relationships, researchers were unable to both mentally support Genie and adequately assess her capabilities.

Lastly, the educators did not ethically treat Genie as a vulnerable human subject. APA (2017) guidelines state that individuals should be protected by the research team to ensure autonomy and protection of the participants and “minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable” (para. 36). Psychologists failed to address Genie’s inability to integrate into society, which resulted in her changing multiple foster homes and losing her language capabilities.


American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct [Video file]. Web.

Rathus, S.A. (2016). HDEV4. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

TLC Documentary. (2013). The secret case of Genie Wiley, the wild child [Video file]. Web.

Vyshedskiy, A., Mahapatra, S., & Dunn, R. (2017). Linguistically deprived children: Meta-analysis of published research underlines the importance of early syntactic language use for normal brain development. Research Ideas and Outcomes, 3(1), 1-17. Web.

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