Let's start with a scenario: a dozen babies are left on an island in the middle of the ocean and are brought up by monkeys. When they come of age, they are mean to find a message somewhere on the island, possibly a tablet or a book. Only there is one problem: there is no way for the children to understand English.

The children may have come up with their own form of verbal communication, but that is a big if. Nonetheless, it is definitely not going to be English.

How can these children be taught to speak and read English if they are abandoned before they even begin to crawl?

The closest situation like this that I can think of would be Lord of the Flies, but they are already quite fluent by the time they get to the island.

  • 2
    Pedantic note: Monkeys are too small to raise human babies. And chimpanzees are too blood-thirsty. And orangutans are too arboreal. You probably need gorillas. Unless you mean sci-fi or fantasy monkeys, of course.
    – dmm
    Oct 2, 2014 at 14:43
  • @dmm, I do not even want to know where you get all these details about apes from ;) Oct 2, 2014 at 18:53

3 Answers 3


The original Tarzan book deals with this situation. His parents had several years' worth of picture and children's books, which they intended to use to educate him while they did whatever they were doing in Africa (which I forget) before they were marooned by pirates. [edit: Then they both died while Tarzan was still a baby.] So, yeah, they had a homeschooling curriculum, and Tarzan [later, as a grown ape-man]used it to self-educate himself. Plus he had his parents' books and their diary. When Tarzan met Jane, he could read and write English but not speak it.

However, don't expect ordinary mortals to get these kinds of self-instructed homeschooling results! According to Wikipedia,

[Tarzan] learns a new language in days, ultimately speaking many languages, including that of the great apes, French, English, Dutch, German, Swahili, many Bantu dialects, Arabic, ancient Greek, ancient Latin, Mayan, the languages of the Ant Men and of Pellucidar.

He also communicates with many species of jungle animals.

Plus he won the Scripps Spelling Bee. ;-)

I'm thinking your kids won't all be homeschooled uber-men like Tarzan. OTOH, you have a bunch of them, so they could work together on the problem. That makes figuring out written language not outside the realm of possibility. J.R.R. Tolkien and his sister had their own language. Kids are really smart when they're not wasting their minds on TV and video games.

  • If there are many children on the island, it's only necessary for one of them to figure out English from the picture books. He could then teach the others English, or read the message and translate. Either way, to say that one out of a dozen people achieve some feat is inherently more plausible than saying that one person just happened to be able to do it. On the other hand, for a fiction story, you can always simply postulate that the hero is smarter than the average person. If he wasn't, he would fail and there would be no story.
    – Jay
    Oct 2, 2014 at 14:08
  • BTW, I don't pretend that this is the best solution. Just arguably the most famous. Even though Jay is correct about humans being "programmed" for language, @what is also correct that it would be hard to learn much of a language this way. Maybe you could have advanced technology that teaches them, like in 2001: A Space Odyssey or like in several episodes of Star Trek (and Stargate, and Buck Rogers, and probably every other sci-fi show ever made). Or like Rosetta Stone. ;-)
    – dmm
    Oct 2, 2014 at 14:52

Why does the message have to be in English?

Messages that are meant to be understood across languages are usually encoded visually. Think of the pictograms used to direct people on airports, or the comic-book-like saftey instructions in the nets at the backs of airplane seats. Or think of making drinking gestures.

If I wanted to communicate a message to those kids, I would draw a comic, in very simple images, using objects from their context. They might puzzle over this for a while, not having seen drawings before, but I would guess they will make sense of it very much faster than a written text.

There are many comic books and graphic novels without text. Some even illustrate abstract concepts such as evolution (Jens Harder, Alpha ... directions). Of course, the meaning of a wordless comic will become more vague and ambivalent, the more complex the message is. But words aren't exact in their meaning either, and abstract concepts such as freedom or love are interpreted quite differently by different people and cultures. The more complex the message is, the more difficult it will be to make it understood by those children, no matter if it is encoded in words or images or some other means.

If the message must be written, then think about how people learn languages most easily. Current language teaching uses images or movies in connection with written or spoken text, the images showing what the words mean. One of the best examples is the Rosetta Stone program, which begins with children ("boy", "girl") playing ("the children jump") and other simple objects (colors, fruits etc.). The program is completely in the language you are learning, with no grammar or other explanations, just presenting language and images in the same way that parents teach language to children. The astronauts use this program to learn Russian in a few months.

Everything else is highly unlikely to work in the real world. People having to deal with survival won't form a community of scholars that will attempt to make sense of a sheet of paper covered in what to them will look like some random texture. How are they even supposed to know that writing is a form of encoding messages? (Also, how many linguists are there in a given population? Maybe there are one or two kids with that kind of talent and interest in your group, but two kids did not crack the hieroglyphs.)

Also, a complex language might not develop in a few years. It is very well possible that those kids will be communicating in grunts and gestures and have no concept of language as we know it at all; or that their "culture" will be so different from ours that an accurate translation of a given English sentence will be impossible without making those kids familiar with out culture and its concepts first.

It seems to me that if the person abandoning those kids on that island plans to later give them a message, he would be stupid not to give them the means to decode it also. That is, to increase the probability of success of his plan he would give those kids a means to learn English (or whatever language he wants to use).

  • 1
    I agree with everything but the last paragraph. Humans are not chimpanzees: the fact that chimpanzees do not speak a recognizable language proves nothing about humans. Plenty of chimpanzees have grown up in zoos or laboratories where they hear human language spoken regularly, as much as many human children do, and never learned to speak. Meanwhile, there have been at least several reported cases of human children growing up in an environment where no one taught them to speak, and they invented their own language. Language appears to be something wired into the human brain.
    – Jay
    Oct 2, 2014 at 14:05
  • 1
    The idea of conveying a message in pictures or cartoons is valid, depending on the kind of message. If the message is, "Open the door by turning the handle counterclockwise, then pulling outward", yes, you could convey that in pictures. But if the message is, "Freedom of speech creates a society of open inquiry that leads to greater innovation, and thus to more advanced technology and a higher standard of living", I can't imagine how to show that in pictures.
    – Jay
    Oct 2, 2014 at 14:13
  • Forget about communicating to these hypothetical children for a moment. You and I are, I presume, both familiar with concepts like freedom, technology, etc. What picture could you draw that would convey to me the idea of "Freedom of speech creates a society of open inquiry that leads to greater innovation, and thus to more advanced technology and a higher standard of living"? Without using words, of course, you can write "technology" and an arrow pointing to some object. And of course you can't use any culturally-dependent symbol -- no using a picture of the statue of liberty, etc.
    – Jay
    Oct 3, 2014 at 13:22
  • RE abandoned/neglected children inventing a language: Here's one case I was thinking of, that was in the news decades ago: web.archive.org/web/20020106135506/http://tlc.discovery.com/… Here's another I stumbled across: newstrackindia.com/newsdetails/67939. I recalled reading about a Pharoah who deliberately had two children isolated to see what language they would speak, and found this article that discusses that and a couple of similar experiments: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_deprivation_experiments Interesting note about that ...
    – Jay
    Oct 3, 2014 at 14:13
  • ... article: Note how the writer dismisses claims that the children learned to speak on their own as obviously inaccurate observation or even fabricated. While of course healthy skepticism is always warranted, this represents a fairly typical human phenomenon: You draw your conclusions first based on your intuition or world view. Then perform the experiment, and if the results match what you have already decided must be true, then this is proof that you were right all along. If the results don't match what you have already decided, than the experiment must be flawed. :-)
    – Jay
    Oct 3, 2014 at 14:17

I largely agree with @dmm's answer and I upvoted it. Let me add: Depending on what you're trying to do with this story, you could make a significant portion of the story be the children's effort to decipher the message. They could find an artifact with the message on it, and figure out that those lines and scratches must be some sort of writing. Lots of civilizations have thought of the idea of writing, so it wouldn't be a stretch to suppose that these children can grasp the idea when they see it even if they don't think of it themselves. Then someone remembers seeing some picture books with similar scratches in the wreckage of the ship or whatever, and they compare and see, yes, the same arrangement of lines occurs in both. Etc.

I'd guess it would be very unlikely that they could decipher a foreign language without SOME sort of key. Archaeologists have puzzled over some ancient languages for centuries without figuring them out, and that's lots of smart people with all sorts of resources. If the children are totally abandoned and have to invent their own language, then presumably no one can leave them an English/islander dictionary. So they'd have to have some other key -- like dmm's/Edgar Rice Burroughs's idea of picture books intended to teach children to read.

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