Language deprivation experiments

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Language deprivation experiments have been attempted in various forms through history, often known as The Forbidden Experiment. Infants are isolated from the normal use of spoken, signed, written or symbolic language in an attempt to discover the fundamental character of human nature or the origin of language. To date, no known cases of The Forbidden Experiment are known to have ever been conducted in a way that specifically eliminates language and symbols while preserving love and social interaction. Previous language-elimination experiments went beyond just eliminating language by also depriving infants of love and social interactions, making it impossible to determine the effect of language alone.

Possible designs for the Forbidden Experiment[edit]

A scientific experiment of this kind could involve creating a closed community of empathetic, emotionally intelligent parents who simply eliminate language and symbols from their children's educational process. Parents could encourage play, socialisation, exploration of the world and creativity directly instead of through an intermediary world of symbols and words. Children could be encouraged to learn and socialise via pure direct experience and to communicate by showing in action rather than telling/thinking via any words they may invent. By comparing 2 or more near-identical communities, one with language and one without, it would be possible to determine any benefits and costs of language for human happiness, creativity, productivity, health and survival, as well as determining whether any kind of language spontaneously arises in its absence. Such experiments could extend to other forms of language such as particular kinds of body language, morality, physical interactions and more. Significance/seriousness as a kind of learned language can also be evaluated. The elimination of physical punishment, disapproving body language, violence or facial expressions that are found to trigger a fight or flight response could be tested for to see what impact this has, as these are also forms of communication. In addition to measuring behaviour, IQ, emotional intelligence, relationships, happiness and real world achievement, various health measurements and brain scans could be used to determine the effects of language and symbols on human development and wellbeing. Such experiments are not known to have ever been undertaken.

In history[edit]

The American literary scholar Roger Shattuck called this kind of research study "The Forbidden Experiment" because of the exceptional deprivation of ordinary human contact it requires.[1] However, language deprivation is distinct from social deprivation, and no known study has focused on just the effects of language elimination. By contrast to language deprivation, experiments on non-human primates (labelled the "Pit of despair") utilising complete social deprivation resulted in psychosis.

Ancient records suggest that experiments eliminating language, love and social interactions were carried out from time to time, though the authenticity of these records is unconfirmable. An early record of an experiment of this kind can be found in Herodotus's Histories. According to Herodotus, the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik I carried out such an experiment, and concluded the Phrygian race must predate the Egyptians since the child had first spoken something similar to the Phrygian word bekos, meaning "bread."[2]

An alleged experiment carried out by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century saw young infants raised without human interaction in an attempt to determine if there was a natural language that they might demonstrate once their voices matured. It is claimed he was seeking to discover what language would have been imparted unto Adam and Eve by God.

The experiments were recorded by the monk Salimbene di Adam in his Chronicles, who wrote that Frederick encouraged "foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no ways to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which had been the first), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments."[3]

Several centuries after Frederick II's experiment, James IV of Scotland was said to have sent two children to be raised by a mute woman isolated on the island of Inchkeith, to determine if language was learned or innate.[4] The children were reported to have spoken good Hebrew.[5] This experiment was later repeated by the Mughal emperor Akbar, who held that speech arose from hearing, thus children raised without hearing human speech would become mute.[6]

In fiction[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shattuck, Roger (1994) [1980]. The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron. Kodansha International. ISBN 1-56836-048-7. 
  2. ^ Herodotus, History II:2, found in "An Account of Egypt".
  3. ^ Medieval Sourcebook: Salimbene: On Frederick II, 13th Century
  4. ^ "First Language Acquisition". Western Washington University. Retrieved 2007-02-03. 
  5. ^ Dalyell, John Graham, ed., The Chronicles of Scotland by Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, vol. 1, Edinburgh (1814) pp. 249-250.
  6. ^ M. Miles, SIGN, GESTURE & DEAFNESS IN SOUTH ASIAN & SOUTH-WEST ASIAN HISTORIES: a bibliography with annotation and excerpts from India; also from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma/Myanmar, Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan, Persia/Iran, & Sri Lanka, c1200-1750