The ability to speak a 2nd language as well one speaks their 1st language is an accomplishment which the vast majority of people cannot boast, and those who can claim fluency in a 2nd language will often say that they have been learning the language for a long time and that they still have farther to go. The struggle for adult learners to develop 2nd language skills seems so strange when compared with the relative ease that young children
, usually 2 to 6, are able to learn an entire language. children
who can barely count or who are still developing reasoning skills are able to acquire an entire language in only four years with no grammar lessons and essentially no vocabulary drills. Even more amazing is that a child raised in a multilingual home will eventually differentiate between the two languages and, if exposed enough, become fluent in both separately.
Because a child is able to pick up a language so well, it is a wonder why adults cannot pick up language like this as well. Even if an adult is immersed in a 2nd language, they will not be able to acquire natural speaking skills the way a child can. An adult will need to be instructed by the people around them, and likely be taught some sort of grammar or structure. It is matter of question whether an adult can acquire a 2nd language the way the 1st language was developed. Yet an adult's ability to learn a 2nd language like the 1st is largely impaired by the fact that they now can count very well and they have developed higher reasoning skills. In essence, they know too much.
The difference in children
and adults is the difference between acquisition and learning. Acquisition occurs naturally on a subconscious level. Learning is a method of development that involves instruction and rules. Are one of these methods better than the other? Studies have shown that while there are differences in the two methods, one is not better than the other and language can be successfully learned both ways (Krashen, Stephen D. Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition). This means that an adult can still learn a 2nd language as well as a child. However, an adult has much more difficulty acquiring language the way that a child does it. A child does not ask questions
about grammar because they do not fully know what grammar is. A child listens for a long period of time before ever speaking. A child doesn't know that something is too hard or difficult. And the child is not focused on irregular forms or structure of sentences. The child merely imitates. The ability for an adult to imitate in this manner is much more difficult as an adult now knows things about grammar, structures, proper and improper speech, and so on. An adult is also much more likely to second guess themselves as they understand the vast amount of differences that could be present. As such, merely listening and acquiring becomes more difficult.
However, an adult can still be extremely successful at a 2nd language despite not developing it in the same way as they did with their 1st. The reason that many students do not fully develop their 2nd language skills is not because they unable to do so. The very fact that they learned one language to begin with is evidence that they can learn language. The issue is more that the learning process, as compared with the acquisition process, can be much more tedious and time-consuming. Learning grammar and paying attention to conjugations and declinations along with the vocabulary that comes along with learning an entire language becomes overwhelming and prevents the adult learner from reaching their fluency goal. Learning a 2nd language can be daunting, frustrating, and difficult for an adult student. However, simply because learning a 2nd language does not come as naturally as learning their 1st should not discourage new students as they will be able to learn the new language as long as they persevere. The key to learning a second language is practicing and consistency. Should a student pursue it fully, an adult learner will have high success in learning their 2nd language.
Grammar Acquisition and Pedagogy [http://www.ielanguages.com/documents/papers/SLA%20Grammar%20Acquisition%20and%20Pedagogy.pdf]
First- and Second-Language Acquisition in Early Childhood [http://ceep.crc.uiuc.edu/pubs/katzsym/clark-b.pdf]