While it may seem like children pick up a second language effortlessly and far more easily than an adult would, this might not always be true. Most children in the world speak more than one language, because they have a natural exposure to them in daily life from a young age. In the United States, fewer children have this opportunity. Unless a child has regular exposure to a second language and a reason for learning it, he probably won't acquire a second language any faster than an adult would.
Young children are hard-wired to learn language in the first few years of life. When frequently exposed to two languages, they unconsciously acquire the second language naturally, applying the same skills they use to acquire their native language. Older children and adults have to learn the language consciously by studying it. Children use the deep motor area of the brain, which controls unconscious actions, to absorb a second language, according to Dr. Paul Thompson, neurology professor at UCLA. After age 11, centers in the brain responsible for language acquisition stop growing rapidly and language acquisition becomes more difficult.
Less to Learn
Very young children don't need to master the complexity of language that older children and adults need to communicate well. They know fewer words and use simpler sentence structures, which means they have less to learn, the Center for Applied Linguistics explains. Adults and older children have more complexities to master, but also have abstract thinking skills and intellectual abilities that allow them to relate the second language to their first language and understand language patterns.
Young children don't fear making mistakes or mispronouncing words like older children and adults do. Older children will learn more easily and willingly if they don't have to worry that others will make fun of their mistakes. When children want to communicate with others in the second language and receive positive feedback for doing so, they make the effort to continue learning. Young children also haven't acquired any negative attitudes about learning a second language, which school-aged children and adults may have.
Some young children learn a second language easily, but lose their first language, unless they receive stimulation to maintain both languages. Children will only continue to use two languages if they receive some value from it, Beverly A. Clark explains in an article published at the Proceedings of the Lilian Katz Symposium in 2000. Children also understand and speak a second language before they have the skills to master the complex academic language they need to succeed in a classroom, the Center for Applied Linguistics warns. It can take a child four to six years or longer to develop the proficiency needed for academic language.