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Learning Languages – Is it Ever Too Late?

16 April 2013

An Abertay academic is set to discuss whether learning languages is indeed more difficult for adults than it is for children – a complicated issue surrounded by many pre-conceptions.

In her Inaugural Lecture on Wednesday (April 17), Professor Vera Kempe will argue that, although science has shown that children are at an advantage when it comes to learning their first language, it does not mean that all is lost when it comes to learning other languages later in life.

Speaking ahead of the event, Professor Kempe said:

“There are a lot of pre-conceptions surrounding language learning – that it’s really difficult, or that one doesn’t need to bother with it because everyone else can speak English these days – but there are so many different factors that influence our need for, and our ability to learn, languages.

“When a child moves to live in a foreign country, for example, it often seems that they find it easier to pick up the new language than their parents do. However, in reality, children who have much more exposure to the new language are in danger of forgetting the old one, while adults, in contrast, tend to maintain their old language – they may have conversations in it on a daily basis, they write in it, read in it and may listen to it on the radio and TV.

“When conditions are similar, adults can be as successful, if not more so, although it remains the case that some adults find learning languages easier than others. For adults, learning speed depends on various cognitive pre-requisites but also on the specific features of the language input the learner is exposed to.”

Professor Kempe will expand on these issues in her lecture using examples from her own research to disentangle some of the confusions surrounding language learning.

Born in Russia and brought up in the former East Berlin in Germany, Professor Kempe is fluent in Russian, German and English.

She studied Psychology at Moscow State University and much of her research has focused on trying to understand the different factors – both linguistic and cognitive – that affect how we learn languages as children and as adults.

Professor Kempe is a member of the Psychonomic Society and the European Society of Cognitive Psychology. She has presented her research at conferences around the world and is widely published in many of the world’s leading psychology and linguistics journals.

Speaking about why she was drawn to this subject and why she feels learning languages is important, Professor Kempe said:

“It is fascinating to me how humans have this ability to learn languages – there doesn’t seem to be a limit to what kinds, or how many, we can learn.

“Learning languages can afford us so many different perspectives on the world – we can talk to people from other countries, read all the fascinating literature that exists but has yet to be translated into English - and we can do this at any stage of our lives.

“Although grammar and vocabulary are, of course, important, I hope to show that there is more to language learning than just that – that it can change the way we see the world.”

'Learning Languages – Is it Ever Too Late?' will take place in the Main Lecture Theatre at the University of Abertay Dundee on Wednesday, April 17 at 6pm. Admission is free and all are welcome. The lecture will be followed by complimentary refreshments.


For media enquiries please contact Kirsty Cameron T: 01382 308935 M: 07922041198 E:

Notes to Editors:

The Professorial lecture series at the University of Abertay Dundee has been established to celebrate the achievement of Professorship by our leading academics.

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