Anne Trafton of the MIT News Office had a report last July on an interesting study:
In a new study, a team of neuroscientists and psychologists led by Amy Finn, a postdoc at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, has found evidence for another factor that contributes to adults’ language difficulties: When learning certain elements of language, adults’ more highly developed cognitive skills actually get in the way. The researchers discovered that the harder adults tried to learn an artificial language, the worse they were at deciphering the language’s morphology — the structure and deployment of linguistic units such as root words, suffixes, and prefixes.
“We found that effort helps you in most situations, for things like figuring out what the units of language that you need to know are, and basic ordering of elements. But when trying to learn morphology, at least in this artificial language we created, it’s actually worse when you try,” Finn says. […]
Linguists have known for decades that children are skilled at absorbing certain tricky elements of language, such as irregular past participles (examples of which, in English, include “gone” and “been”) or complicated verb tenses like the subjunctive.
“Children will ultimately perform better than adults in terms of their command of the grammar and the structural components of language — some of the more idiosyncratic, difficult-to-articulate aspects of language that even most native speakers don’t have conscious awareness of,” Finn says.
In 1990, linguist Elissa Newport hypothesized that adults have trouble learning those nuances because they try to analyze too much information at once. Adults have a much more highly developed prefrontal cortex than children, and they tend to throw all of that brainpower at learning a second language. This high-powered processing may actually interfere with certain elements of learning language.
You can read more about how the study worked at the link; unfortunately, “Still unresolved is the question of whether adults can overcome this language-learning obstacle.”