Journalistic nonsense on Amstetten children's speech

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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.

My colleague Bob Ladd adds these remarks: "It's worth making a comparison between these kids and Natascha Kampusch, the other Austrian dungeon child from two years ago. By coincidence, I was in Berlin the night her interview was broadcast on Austrian TV, and got back to my hotel room and switched on the TV just as it started. The thing that struck me was how eerily articulate she was, and how standard-sounding her German was, with only a hint of Austrian accent. (Some native speaker of German in the department at the time — I forget who — turned out to have had the same reaction.) Presumably her only interlocutor was her abductor, and apparently he used to have intelligent conversations with her about quite a range of topics. So she learned how to talk intelligently. The Fritzl kids mostly had each other, so you get twinspeak. This is news?"

He also notes that media reports are saying that the children's mother "taught them German". I had noticed this too. Sometimes one despairs of ever dragging the general public's notions about language out of the 19th century. No mother needs to teach her children language. Talking to them in normal contexts, or even just talking to others when in their presence, is sufficient. They simply acquire the language; no one really knows much about how this happens (adults who already know a language seem to mostly lose the ability to accomplish the same feat), but it certainly isn't a matter of language teaching. Grotesque and terrible though the environment was in which Elisabeth Fritzl's children were raised, they had the company of their mother, who already spoke German, and as the years went by they had each other too, and also occasional contact with Elisabeth's brutal father (he was non-human in terms of empathy and morality, it seems, but human biologically and linguistically). That much, plus watching television, was a linguistic environment adequate for language acquisition to take place naturally.

Nearly all linguists who are reading about the Amstetten case will be recollecting the story of Genie, the girl whose an insane father kept her strapped to a chair in almost total social isolation in a back room in a Los Angeles house from infancy until she was almost fourteen. That was also appalling, but very different in its character: Genie was hardly exposed to any language use at all after her earliest months, and remained severely language-deprived even after her discovery and rescue. The intensive efforts by many people to restore her to a normal human environment and help her to learn English cannot be said to have been successful, though some limited linguistic development occurred. The Fritzl children have no doubt been enormously damaged in psychological and physiological terms by the extraordinary number of things they have been deprived of (exercise, natural light, environmental stimuli, human society, schooling); but for policemen and journalists who apparently know nothing about language acquisition to overstate their linguistic strangeness as well adds ignorant insult to terrible injury.

[Update, May 1: Discussion at the Daily Telegraph site has touched on the question of whether there something particularly sick about Austrian society, that both subterranean dungeon cases (Kampusch and Fritzl) could happen at all. Some, of course, say that we should not judge a whole society by a couple of isolated incidents. Yet remarkably, the case reported here via The Times, involving three girls held captive in darkness and filth for seven years by their deranged mother, once again has an Austrian backdrop, the town of Linz. (There are suggestions of strange language between the siblings in that case too.) One could understand why people might be wondering whether Austrians are sufficiently inquisitive about their neighbours' activities, after three such hideous cases in just a couple of years. However, see this page at the Feral Children website for a systematic listing of cases of confined children. These cases make horrifying reading (spend half an hour with this page and you will come away feeling you should become an activist or a social worker), but the list given shows clearly that they are not limited to Austria. There are reports from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, Fiji, France, Germany, India, Iran, Morocco, Poland, Portugal, Russia, SouthAfrica, Thailand, Ukraine, the UK, and the USA. Several of these countries, including the USA, have seen more than one instance.]

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