Is there a critical age beyond which a child can’t acquire language? There is, according to the so-called “critical period hypothesis”. But the evidence suggests that there is no sharply delineated critical period beyond which there’s a huge drop-off. Rather, there’s a linear decline in language proficiency as the age of first exposure increases, both for first and second-language acquisition. This holds true for both spoken language and sign language.
In my thoughts, I keep returning to Fritz Moen, who served eighteen years in prison for two murders he didn’t commit. Moen was born in 1941. He was almost completely deaf at birth: what was left of his hearing wasn’t enough for him to learn spoken language. He wasn’t exposed to sign language until he started school at age seven. At his trial, and in the controversy that followed, his communicative problems were a major point of debate. There was no physical evidence to suggest that Moen had raped and killed two young students in Trondheim, Norway, in 1976 and 1977. In fact, the physical evidence that existed pointed to the contrary: blood found on one of the victims was of a different blood type than Moen’s. In addition to all of that, he was paralyzed in one arm following an accident, and there was some doubt as to whether he was even physically capable of strangling his supposed victims in the way forensics showed they were killed. Moen was convicted based on a confession he later attempted to retract, saying he was lured or coerced into confessing by the police. Communication, or miscommunication, is clearly at the heart of this case.
To recap the earlier posts, we’re in the seventies in Trondheim. It’s around 2 am on September 5, 1976, and the 20-year-old student Sigrid Heggheim is on her way home from a party at Samfundet, a very red, very round building that houses the student organization in Trondheim. Walking her part of the way is a young man she met at the party, and they part ways near Stavne Bridge. This is the last time she is seen alive. Sigrid is found on September 11, hidden in the tall grass on a field behind a gas station. She’s been strangled with no less than three items: her blouse, her bra and a string from her jacket. The police find blood on her and semen in her.
Fritz Moen is a suspect because he has been up to no good before. He finally did learn sign language, although his understanding of abstract concepts is a point of contention, and he has learned to sort of communicate with the hearing, if things don’t move too fast and if they stay concrete. But he has never found his place in society. At boarding school, he was relentlessly bullied, and became known as a problem child. He could not hold down a job despite numerous short stints in various professions. At times, he struggles with alcoholism. He is a misfit among the hearing and among the deaf. He’s been caught red-handed in petty crimes. Of more interest to the police, he’s been convicted for indecent exposure: flashing his goods at unsuspecting women and, on several occasions, to children. Showing off his dick was a great way of one-upping hearing men, who could hardly top that, Moen thought. He had also ran after young women, trying to touch them up from behind. But had he really raped and killed a young woman? Could he even, given his paralyzed arm? Because of his history, Fritz Moen was a person of interest, among many others, but was not a suspect. Blood samples from Sigrid’s vagina, which were determined to come from the perpetrator’s semen, didn’t match Moen’s blood type.
One year later, on October 2, 1977, another young student, Torunn Finstad, is on her way home from Samfundet. She is last seen at Stavne Bridge, the walk/railway bridge where Sigrid Heggheim was last seen a year ago. She is reported missing on October 4, and a dog patrol finds her halfway into the river, naked below the waist, on a field just below the bridge on the other side.
Above: police photo showing the walk path from the end of the bridge, with the field (which was at the time an archery range) marked with an “A” and the spot she was found marked with an arrow. Below: a wider view of the bridge from the other side of the river, arrow still pointing at the scene of the crime.
Fritz Moen is an immediate suspect, and he is interrogated over several days. At first he denies having anything to do with the murder. Then he confesses, but vacillates, at times denying it and at times claiming to have committed the murder. These interviews are at the heart of this case: was Moen coerced, fooled, bribed, confused into signing a confession? Concurrently, he is being interrogated in relation to the murder of Sigrid Heggheim, since the police suspected there was one murderer. Finally, it is decided that Moen will be prosecuted for the rape and murder of Torunn alone, and he is convicted in 1978. Later, he is also convicted of murdering Sigrid Heggheim.
We’re talking about a man who lived all his life as an outcast. He was bullied and linguistically and socially understimulated throughout his childhood. Now he was being subjected to long, drawn-out interviews in which he was probably confused and scared. At times, he claimed he was intimidated into signing the confession; at other times, he claimed he was fooled, and that it was “dangerous” for him to tell the truth. Most of this post is based on a very comprehensive report delivered to the Norwegian Department of Justice in 2007, after Moen, now dead, had been posthumously exonerated. In the report, we learn that, according to people who knew Moen, his understanding of abstract concepts like “truth” was lacking, and may very well have coincided with “what the authorities are saying”. Maybe that’s what you’d expect them to say. But psychiatrist Anne Regine Føreland, who had observed Moen during the trials, claims he couldn’t have understood more than 20 or 30 percent of what was said to him during the trials, because, although there were sign interpreters, the pace was far too quick for them to keep up.
Above: Fritz Moen at a reconstruction of the murder of Sigrid Heggheim.
Could Moen’s late exposure to language have stunted his capacity for abstract thought? The evidence certainly shows that children who learn their first language late grow up not to be as proficient adults as those who learn their first language early. From an overview of the literature on the critical period hypothesis by Elissa Newport et al:
However, age of exposure does not affect all aspects of language learning equally. As reviewed in more detail below, the acquisition of vocabulary and semantic processing occur relatively normally in late learners. Critical period effects thus appear to focus on the formal properties of language and not the processing of meaning.
This doesn’t seem to support the idea that Moen would not, because he didn’t encounter language until he was seven, have later come to understand abstractions like truth. But during the first trial, he was diagnosed with “surdophrenia”, a syndrome affecting the deaf that includes a small vocabulary and a tendency towards concrete thinking. Recently, the term “surdophrenia” has been criticized as unnecessarily specific and stigmatizing; critics point out that similar symptoms are found in hearing children who are socially deprived. Whether or not the term is correct, it seems clear that Moen must have exhibited the symptoms for a trained psychiatrist, experienced in working with the deaf, to pronounce him surdophrenic.
Perhaps trying to shoehorn the man into a diagnosis is not the way to go. Fritz Moen was troubled all his life, and he was subjected to a barrage of psychiatric tests. A psychiatric evaluation from 1965 declared that he was of normal intelligence, but, “
but because of his hearing defect and lacking parental care, he has not achieved adequate contact, and psychopathic traits have developed.” Was he unable to empathize with others? Certainly, others were unable to empathize with him. It’s almost impossible to image what it would have been like to be Fritz Moen. What his thought processes looked like. When we speak of sociopaths, autists, and others who are thought to lack empathy, we imagine there to be a great chasm between us and them, which they are unable to bridge. And yet that chasm is equally wide from the other side, and we seem equally unable to cross it. This doesn’t excuse Fritz Moen’s numerous crimes (flashing, theft, etc.); but, on the other hand, it doesn’t excuse his wrongful conviction, either. When Moen was finally exonerated for both crimes, thanks in large part to the efforts of private investigator Tore Sandberg, he was dead, and another man, dead before his story could be confirmed, had confessed to the crimes.
The aforementioned report concludes:
A police officer who [strongly believes the suspect is guilty and] is convinced that he is serving the interests of society, may: (1) pressure the suspect during questioning, (2) pressure witnesses to make them testify as the police wants, (3) suppress or overlook evidence that suggests the suspect’s innocence, (4) make documents that indicate innocence disappear. The committee believes there have been elements of all these violations of the principle of objectivity in the Moen cases. (…) Most of the violations of the principle of objectivity are not serious in isolation, and on their own have probably not had much influence on the result. But taken together, they may in the committee’s opinion have had a large influence.
Those are some pretty damning words, more damning, perhaps, because they’re not an indictment of any specific person. They point to the failure of an entire system. A system designed to protect the weak put a weak, innocent man in prison for eighteen years. A system designed to protect the weak let an innocent man die guilty, in 2005. That same system could not protect a weak man until that man was dead. This is an epic tragedy.Mar 5, 2011