Human communication hypothetical experiment

If a few babies were to be left on an island on the middle of nowhere, with robots to take care of them and no entertainment with spoken words or any contact to any spoken or written language… what would happen if they survived? (This is really cruel, of course, and I don’t want to do that!).
The question is: Would a group of people with no contact with any known languages create their own way to communicate?

Nicaraguan Sign Language.

In his very readable book “The Search for the Perfect Language”, Umberto Eco relates an ancient Egyptian legend according to which a pharaoh once conducted the experiment (with humans taking care of the children, of course, but they were not allowed to speak). The result was, according to the legend, that the children used the Phoenician word for “bread” to beg for bread, leading the Egyptians to conclude that Phoenician was the most natural, original language. I doubt that the experiment was conducted as such, and the result certainly wouldn’t meet modern academic standards, but it illustrates that the thought experiment is very old. It survived into modern era; in linguistics, there is a hypothesis called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which, in summary, says that the rules and structures of a language predetermine the mental concepts of speakers who grew up in that language. An artifical language with structures totally different from natural languages was developed to test the hypothesis, but the experiment was never conducted; the artificial language that was developed for the concept, and some of its further refinements, are still around, however, the most notable of them being Lojban.

But the concept of language is something that is learnt because someone teaches us or it comes inside our brains? Is vocal communication something “natural”? I know that monkeys do communicate with yells and whines and all those monkey sounds, and that Koko, the Gorilla is capable of communicating with humans to an amazing level, but what about us?

and interesting (and sad) case in real life:


Oliver Sacks, in his book “Seeing Voices” reviewed historical and contemporary cases of children isolated from language in young childhood; uniformly they showed significant cognitive deficits, even those those that were of normal intelligence were unable to learn language at a later stage beyond very simple, concrete communications. They were unable to express their abstract thoughts (or unable to have any, it’s not totally easy to separate the two).

Language is natural to the human animal in the sense that it is a behavior that is transferred socially. Vocal language is not a requirement. Deaf children exposed to sign language form a true first language and do not experience cognitive deficits in the area of language (separate from their personal intellectual abilities).

With no adults around, they wouldn’t even understand the idea of a society, so it’s hard to see how the children would even cooperate together to do anything. They might be able, if they somehow did start cooperating, to create a little bit of a language. The most likely thing is that they would all die.

I question that. Humans are naturally social animals. Of course, Harlow’s experiments suggest that the robots raising them would need to be able to provide at least some sort of simulation of affection, if they are to survive.

Anyway, the material on Nicaraguan sign language I already linked to suggests that language will develop naturally in a group of children who, although not totally isolated from other humans, as the OP envisages, were isolated in the relevant way, isolated from linguistic input from a pre-existent language due to their deafness.

With multiple children, it’s a very different case from having a single isolated child.

Very young children will often play side-by-side, where they aren’t directly playing with each other, but are both paying attention to what the other is doing. As they get older, they play directly together. I don’t see any reason this wouldn’t happen in the OP’s scenario. I’d expect that the kids in the OP would play together, and from there that they would develop a rudimentary language.

The children referenced in the Nicaraguan Sign Language article were raised by parents for several years who socialized them. They then were surrounded by teachers who socialized them. That’s entirely different from being raised by robots, unless we assume that robots somehow knew how to socialize children. Humans may have instincts that take over when someone socializes them, but they can’t create a society on their own.

The idea of playing together, or playing at all, requires some socialization.

Horribly sad, but I’m not sure we should extrapolate from Genie’s deficits to the OP’s thought experiment. Genie wasn’t *only *deprived of language, but affection, movement, food, elimination training, toys…and she was regularly beaten, clawed and terrified by loud (nonverbal) noises and swearing. There’s also some indication that she may have had some mental deficit even before the worst of the abuse began, thanks to an untreated rH incompatibility reaction in utero.

Genie was (is) messed up, for sure, but I’m not sure that lacking language is the worst of her problems.

What are you defining as “socialization”? If it just means that the kids are in the same location, and can see each other, can touch each other, can play with the same items (even if there are just sticks and rocks laying around) then there is socialization. The OP certainly didn’t specify that the kids are all kept separate.

On the other hand, maybe you are defining socialization as some kind of teaching by their parents, or by the robots in the OP. if so, I disagree that that kind of socialization is required. The first kind will be sufficient.

And I disagree with you.

I read a version of this story where King James VI/I conducted the same experiment. In this case the child (or children?) who had been deprived of language were found to be speaking Hebrew, leading to the conclusion that Hebrew is the natural language of all mankind.

Wherever I read it (it could have been Pinker, or Deutscher, or neither of those two), this story was presented as fact, and I believed it (not the bit about the children speaking Hebrew, obviously, but that the experiment had been carried out and led to this absurd conclusion). Now that I realise that the same story is told of different places and eras, I am sceptical.

But you won’t tell anyone what you mean by “socialization”?

The fact that the story is told on many different places is quite interesting…

But well, about socialization: many animals live in society, so I think that the group forming is something natural. When babies are left on a room and one of them starts crying the other ones will start as well (imagine mayhem). And communication does not have to be vocal, that is true. Would it be even legal to perform such an experiment? Take care of children (with humans or remote-controlled robots, ehm…) without the use of language?

I am pretty sure that the notion that the kid would speak Hebrew it was the hypothesis, the prediction someone made about what would happen if this experiment were carried out, not an actual claimed result (even a mythical one). I also very much doubt that James I was ever seriously credited with making such an experiment. He did not really live all that long ago.

I believe I have heard the story of this experiment associated with Holy Roman Emperor* Frederick II. Indeed, I find it is mentioned here in Wikipedia, which mentions the hypothesis that they would speak Hebrew. The experiment however, is said to have failed (if it was ever really carried out).

*He wasn’t holy or Roman, but he did have bit of an empire.

No, they don’t. Hospital nurseries are not mayhem. Usually.

No. Not only no, but, hell, no. Neglect, at the very least, but it would probably be ruled abuse. There is no way you could get the required ethics approvals from any legitimate funding source for such an experiment. You can’t even get approval for experiments in artificial feeding where you get moms to promise not to feed their children breastmilk - you have to look at retrospective studies of people who tell you they voluntarily withheld breastmilk before you came into the picture with your clipboards and questionnaires.

I’m not even confident you could get approval for Harlow’s monkey-with-a-steel-cage mom experiment these days. I have seen this info in quite a few places…