The first report I have seen concerning the language skills of the imprisoned children involved in the horror story coming out of Amstetten, this Daily Telegraph story by Nick Allen [hat tip: Matt Austin], is headlined Dungeon children speak in animal language. I suppose we should have expected it: the usual headline-writers' nonsense. Animals do not have language, and these children do not communicate like animals. The story says:
Stefan Fritzl, 18, and his brother Felix, five, learned to talk by watching a television in the dungeon where they were held with their mother Elisabeth Fritzl, 42. But their form of communication is only partly intelligible to Austrian police officers.
Police chief Leopold Etz, 50, who has met the two boys, said: "It is only half true that they can speak. They communicate with noises that are a mixture of growling and cooing."
"If they want to say something so others understand them as well they have to focus and really concentrate which seems to be extremely exhausting for them."
Being able to say anything at all to other people, however exhausting the process, makes them already quite different from any non-human animal species on earth. And semi-private speech modes used by children with siblings (e.g., identical twins with mostly or only their twin for company) are well known to developmental psycholinguists.
I find the Amstetten story almost unbearably appalling. I am viscerally affected by the story each time I think about it, which is many times each day. A point about reporting on their language seems almost too trivial to make. But perhaps it is worthwhile to say just this much: let us all try to ensure that the terrible psychological damage done to these poor children and their mother by the monster who imprisoned them is not now amplified by the promulgation of sensationalist nonsense likening them to animals.
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