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Chalkboard with Different Languages

Introducing our first whole-class novel

For years, I taught about Genie, the Southern California girl who was isolated and abused by her parents until she was found by social services at 13 years old. Famously, Genie was raised "without language," with little to no linguistic input since birth.

This made her an attractive subject for researchers, especially those studying early childhood language development. The case raises important scientific and ethical questions: What conclusions can we really draw from Genie's case? How could Genie's welfare be prioritized when she was the subject of such intense research? These were the questions I centered when my students and I studied Genie's story, which leant itself to teaching concepts from neuro- and psycholinguistics.

When I moved from topical units to thematic units, I organized one whole unit around Genie. It was called "Genie: Language, Science, and Ethics." What can we learn about language from her case, and what can't we learn? What are the scientist's obligations to their subjects? Students have always been captivated by Genie's story even as they deeply empathized with her. But as I taught her story over the years, especially as we began to be aware of trauma-informed teaching, the focus on her began to seem lurid, even exploitative. She is a real person, and what happened to her is tragic.

My first solution was to change the focus of the unit from Genie specifically to language deprivation in general. We would still talk about Genie, but we could broaden our focus to bigger issues: the systemic violence toward Indigenous people and languages by way of colonization, or the withholding of signed languages from deaf children. But when I mentioned this to one of my editors, she reminded me of how problematic deficit narratives are, and that colonization narratives must emphasize resilience rather than trauma.

So, back to the drawing board. That was around the time that my colleague stopped by my room to tell me about a new book she had just read, True Biz, and how much she had learned about language from it. I ordered it that day, and the time from the book's publication to its addition to our curriculum set a land-speed record.

We had been trying to find a whole-class novel to read in Linguistics for years. I had found a lot of great YA books that connected to language, but nothing that was quite right: they were too long, too easy, or they just didn't focus enough on language to justify the time it would take to read them. But True Biz is about language. It even mentions some of the concepts we cover in this very unit, like language acquisition and the critical period, syntax, and Black ASL. It tells an engaging story with complicated, real teenagers at the center, but (unlike some YA novels), has complicated, real adult characters as well. It raises important questions about Deafness and language without offering easy answers. It focuses on resilience in the face of trauma. And it provides students with a window into a culture they usually know very little about.

I've spent the summer reorganizing our old "Genie" unit topics according to how they show up in True Biz. I've got some provisional essential questions that rework the old "Genie" unit essential questions and fit effortlessly into this novel. They are

  • What does True Biz illustrate about the connections among language, identity, and culture, especially in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community?

  • How do people develop language? What do signed languages have in common in terms of grammar and development, and how are they different?

  • What is language deprivation (and what is it not)? What effects does language deprivation have on people, individually and culturally?

We'll probably start this book in October or November, which will also provide a model for reading fiction through a linguistic lens. We can practice exploring questions related to language, culture, linguistic discrimination, and language ideologies, which students can then apply to their book club or independent reading books.

We'll still probably talk about Genie, but only as a way to deepen our discussions of language and ethics. It will be interesting to compare Genie's story with Charlie's (the character with a cochlear impact who doesn't get exposed to her own language--ASL--until high school). True Biz gives the topic of language acquisition a nuance that Genie's story doesn't. I can't wait to start.


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