Behind the scenes: Language development

Amber Eyes

Language Development

This post may be a tad longer than the others, because it is so central to the way Nameless talks (or doesn’t, depending on who’s reading the books.)

There are a host of articles on the web discussing the fact that a language delay is always present with a mental disability.  Mind you, these articles are focused on children who have some socialization with others – their parents, siblings, day care, school, or play mates.  Only a few articles approach child development from the perspective of the child having no socialization, which is the cause of the language delay.  When this happens, it is not the mental development that hinders language development.  It is language development that hinders mental development.

Again, go back and read The girl in the window carefully.  Though Dani was 7 when she was adopted, due to the neglect that led to the lack of language development, she had a rather severe mental disability.  One that she still hadn’t over come by the time she was 10.

Even the other verifiable case of a feral child found in the US, another girl named Genie, was unable to overcome her disabilities despite extensive work by psychologists and other therapists working in conjunction with her foster parents.  The rare cases when a child learns to speak after being “rescued” often involve children who were between two and three years of age when their neglect began, or they were lost to the local wilderness.

That leads to the next look at the crafting of Nameless.

There is still an ongoing debate about when the critical window of development closes for language.  Even though someone who already speaks can learn it at an older age (such as middle school, high school, or college) this is because the foundations for at least one language have become embedded in the person’s psyche from birth.  For Nameless, I took the outer most edge of the disputed range, having him introduced to language around age eight.  Needless to say, this led to a host of problems for he and I to overcome.

The first, and most obvious, was how he was introduced to languages in the first place.  Most feral children without language, do manage to grunt, or make some type of sound they’ve heard in their environment before.  Since I knew I’d need a character who could speak, I’d already laid the foundations for verbalization before I knew about the issues that come with a feral child.  (Lucky me?)  I was able to build up from there, though keeping it plausible was not an easy task.

A more subtle concern was figuring out how to maintain the intelligence necessary for the child to survive once he matured into adulthood.  Almost everything I read indicated that feral children often behaved similarly to autistic children, which would not prove to be a good thing within the story’s premise.  That’s where I bent the rules a little bit.  Though Nameless doesn’t do everything perfect (the obstinacies that come with a high intelligence, or mental disabilities was one of the things I held on to), he does learn very quickly.

I’d already had him problem solving with age-appropriate solutions, so making the change from an internal drive to solve a problem to an external was not that large of a leap.  However, there still remained the issue of language fluency to go with this.  Just because Nameless learned to speak did not mean he grasped the concept of grammar and syntax.

To be honest, if I had stayed any closer to the truth, Nameless probably would never have been able to speak a complex language.  Something reliant on point and grunt should have been the maximum he could learn to speak, though he would understand others.  I chortle whenever I hear people complain about the way he mangles the English language.  I think readers would rather have a mangled, cryptic dialogue than one along the lines of “he pointed at the object he wanted and grunted excitedly.”

I may be a good storyteller, but I doubt my skills are up to being able to keep that type of dialogue interesting very long.  Not to mention, I’d wind up having a murderous time with the big, bright, shiny repetition button.

That’s it for this week, so I’m going to turn it over to you.  Do you have any questions about what went on behind the scenes so far?  Please leave them in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to answer them.


Next week, I’ll start addressing another behind the scenes aspect:  Infant Survival

Behind the scenes reality: Feral Nameless

Critical Windows of Development

Since I’m dealing with a character who not only holds center stage, but also has to be able to accomplish quite a bit, I knew that I would be bending plausibility a bit here.  In part because I was having to bend the rules a tad about how much can be learned outside the acceptable critical windows of development.

Just what are these windows?  As The Science of Waldorf Education these are time periods of time during development that the brain is open to a particular type of experience to result in a particular talent, and after the window closes, this talent can no longer be learned.  OK, let’s break this down a bit more, since the example provided in the article doesn’t exactly make sense for a fantasy book.

The basics, like walking, grabbing, and imaginative play all have toddler and early childhood windows.  Making sure Nameless experienced these was an interesting challenge – he had no one to model his behavior against, nor did he have much environmental stimulation to drive him into achieving these milestones.  A little fancy foot work, and being able to think outside the box allowed me to include these achievements.  The main achievement, the one that seems to determine if there is a “human” within the character, however is the one I had the most difficult with – language development.

That will be the discussion for the next installment.

Behind the scenes reality: Nameless



Though I did not set out to make the main character a feral child, that is what his story wound up becoming.  Since that realization, I have worked diligently to treat the issues surrounding feral children with respect and dignity.  Because of the setting, this has not always been easy, though I hope my readers agree with the treatment I have provided on this very touchy subject.

I have heard the term “feral” bandied about by some in a joking tone, I feel this subject deserves to be respected.  As such, before I get too much further, let me explain what I feel creates a feral child.

“The term [feral child] is not a diagnosis. It comes from historic accounts — some fictional, some true — of children raised by animals and therefore not exposed to human nurturing.” (The girl in the window by Lane DeGregory, Times Staff Writer Tampa Bay Times, published July 31, 2008)



In the Followers of Torments Saga

In the case of Nameless, this was being raised in a dark cell alone.  Though his earliest childhood was isolation, after I discovered the truth about feral children, and the issues that come with, I knew I needed to make sure that I had a character that could at least partially function.  Especially if I wanted to keep up the plausibility, rather than have a caricature of the issue, like we see in Disney’s movies Tarzan and The Jungle Book.  That set me off on an entirely different type of research.  That led to several days of research on critical windows of development, which will be the subject of the next post.