Is it ever too late to learn a second language?

man in glasses and gray shirt
James Lantolf

James Lantolf learned German, his fourth language, when he was 35. He picked it up during visits with his wife's family in Germany, where, for a while, his speaking skills confined him to a spot at the children's table. Raised in the United States in an Italian-speaking home, Lantolf learned English as a child. He later tackled Spanish in college. While studying in Mexico, Lantolf says, he was one of the few students whose language skills significantly improved, simply because he wasn't afraid to make mistakes.

Now a professor of Spanish and linguistics and director of the Center for Language Acquisition at Penn State, Lantolf, 56, studies the limits of language learning. People have always had the idea that when you reach a certain age, you lose the ability to learn a language, he says. But it's not fair to compare children and adults when it comes to language learning, he adds, because "language is a child's life." Children "study" for thousands of hours a year, while adults almost never get that much practice, even if they study a language in college. Also, children need language to belong to their community, whereas adults who already "belong" to a certain language community may be reluctant—or find it too difficult—to join a new one. Learning a new language, says Lantolf, is learning a new way to make meaning in the world. "You have to ask yourself, " he says, "Are you comfortable stepping into a different identity?"

Lantolf understands that adults can find learning a language difficult and intimidating and, in part, he blames the way languages are taught. "The fundamental problem," says Lantolf, "is that people are led to believe that we are bad language learners as adults." Penalized for every imperfection, adults are taught that communication in the new language must be flawless, otherwise "you get a C on your paper," he says. Adults are expected to reach "native-like perfection" and to talk about the complicated topics of the adult world—politics, weather, the future—as they would in their native language. Children learning a language, on the other hand, "don't even have to talk about tomorrow," he says, and they are given the freedom to make mistakes. Lantolf thinks that language education requires a unique approach, including the possibility of allowing teachers to give students help during exams. It may sound outrageous, he adds, but that kind of openness might improve language acquisition.

With a book coming out this spring, one of five he's co-edited, Lantolf's exploration of language learning is far from winding down. His current research explores people's ability to learn meaning and metaphor in non-native languages and how gestures differ between languages.

When it comes to learning new languages, Lantolf doesn't believe that adults are out of the loop. The key is to be patient and forgiving. "To say that it is not possible for adults to learn a language is missing the point," he says. "You have to make it into something positive. This is what you can do."

James Lantolf, Ph.D., is professor of Spanish and linguistics and director of the Center for Language Acquisition in the College of the Liberal Arts, 305 Sparks Building, University Park, PA 16801; (814) 863-7068; jpl7@psu.edu. Jillian Koopman, jdk268@psu.edu, is an undergraduate English major at Penn State. This is her first story for Research/Penn State.

Last Updated October 13, 2004