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Can a Boy Raised by Wolves Learn to Speak Human Language? It Depends.

The story of Victor of Aveyron, a boy who was raised by wolves and taught us about language.

By
Kate Whitcomb, Writing for,
Episode #738

The legend of Victor of Aveyron’s early childhood sounds like something straight out of "The Jungle Book”: The story goes that he was raised by wolves until early adolescence, never learning to communicate or function in society, until the day he decided to join the village next to the woods that had been his home.

Victor of Aveyron was spotted for the first time on the edge of the woods in 1794 but stayed hidden for another three or four years until some hunters noticed what looked to be a naked child, about six years old, watching them from the treeline. Victor froze as they approached, maybe instinctively feeling what we call “stranger danger,” so he got a late start running back into the woods. They caught up with him just as he scrambled up a tree and were able to pull him down. His stay in the village didn’t last long though; he was placed with a little old lady but ran off after a week and the villagers would occasionally see him over the next three years, often wearing the increasingly tattered clothes he’d been given during his short stay in town.

Nine times, the villagers tried to capture him again when he would come out of the woods, but they were never successful. On occasion, they would wake up in the morning to find that a few loaves of bread had been stolen from one of the houses, and they’d know that they’d missed another chance to catch the wild child from the woods. Then, just a few days after New Year’s Day 1800, Victor walked out of the woods and into the village, apparently ready to join society.

Victor joined the village in 1800.

A few people came to meet Victor in hopes that he was their long-lost child, but no one claimed him. The gossip around town was that he was the unwanted illegitimate child of a local nobleman. A physician named Itard who got to know the boy quite well hypothesized later that Victor “lived in an absolute solitude from his fourth or fifth to almost his twelfth year, which is the age he may have been when he was taken in the Caune woods” (Itard).

Since Victor had run away when placed with the elderly widow the first time he lived in the village, this time the villagers placed him in the only institution that seemed even remotely related to his unique situation: the Institute for Deaf-Mutes. It didn’t take a lot of observation to realize that Victor was neither deaf nor mute, so this predictably turned out to be a bad idea, but there was no such thing as special education or even mental hospitals for children. 

A doctor named Itard took Victor into his care.

They were running out of options, and an asylum was looking to be the only choice, despite being considered disgusting and cruel even by contemporary standards. Fortunately for Victor, a young physician named Itard who worked to improve the quality of life of the deaf children at the Institute took an interest in the wild child and asked to take Victor into his custody in exchange for the opportunity to study his language skills. And fortunately for us, Itard meticulously documented his entire experience with Victor.

The Critical Period of Learning

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.”

Let’s consider the environment in which Victor found himself at the turn of the century. There had been some discussion about language development starting in the year 1795 (Pabst). The questions boiled down, essentially, to:

  • How do deaf/mute children understand and communicate with hearing children?
  • Could they develop the cognitive ability to form or understand ideas as complex and abstract as those of developmentally average kids?
  • Is signing the first step for all language learning?
  • Was it possible to teach feral children how to speak? Communicate at all? [And] To what extent?

The flexible nature of newborns’ cognitive development allows them to learn any and all languages they're exposed to, but if they aren't using a particular sound, their brain will toss it as it determines what information it will need later. Once babies begin learning their first words, just before they finish their first year, they get better at making the sounds they hear and repeat often, but they’ll only repeat these sounds with reinforcement from other people. 

This does mean, by the way, that you can easily teach your baby a language you don’t know or pronounce well. They'll pick it up from videos, songs, or other adults. But be careful about sitting them in front of a screen: this takes away the reinforcement aspect, rendering the whole thing practically useless once their brain starts trimming away unused phonemes, or the sounds that we use to make up words. After infancy, these phonemes are all but gone; children have a chance to learn them once again before puberty but after that, it is nearly impossible for them to match the fluency of someone who has spoken the language since birth. (Gervain)

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. Without exposure to language until after he had begun puberty, Victor never even learned to differentiate between 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 of us, we didn’t need to hear what words our mother was actually saying to understand that we better not keep doing what we were doing or we’d be in trouble, but Victor didn’t know how to pick up on the audible clues we learned as babies. But quickly adapted.

Itard’s Account of Victor’s Humanity

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 receiving good care 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. Victor waved to neighbors and enjoyed playing with the local children, particularly younger ones who didn’t seem bothered by his differences. He would occasionally run away for short periods of time, but that eventually stopped after he returned from a two-week absence. When he came back that time, he wept deeply at seeing the housekeeper Guérin perhaps from guilt, joy, or some combination of the two. Unable to decipher social cues or verbal tones, he was wary about his reunion with the stern Itard and hesitated to greet him, perhaps thinking he might be angry about Victor's 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. (Carrey)

But perhaps the most poignant example of Victor’s 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 table 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 but failing to hold back her tears. Victor silently took away the place setting and walked over to embrace Guérin, and he never put the fourth plate on the table again. (Itard)

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, although 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 more than 170 cases of hearing-impaired patients. He also invented a catheter for the eustachian tube in the ear, which is still known as Itard’s catheter, and documented the first case of Tourette’s in a noblewoman. Itard eventually became known for his groundbreaking work in “the 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,” according to Normand Carrey (Carrey).  It’s important to note, though often overlooked by academics including Itard himself, that Victor was able to 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 equals humanity. 

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. As Bruno Bettelheim said, “Belief in the truth of the occasional reports of children having been reared by wolves and behaving like animals may in part be accounted for by a narcissistic unwillingness to acknowledge the human nature of the so-called feral children.”

That segment was written by Kate Whitcomb, a linguist and teacher with degrees in psycholinguistics and cognitive neuroscience. You can find her online at thelaymanslinguist.com and on Twitter as @LaymansLinguist.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

References

About the Author

Kate Whitcomb, Writing for Grammar Girl

Kate Whitcomb is a linguist and teacher with degrees in psycholinguistics and cognitive neuroscience. You can find her at thelaymanslinguist.com.

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