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Ask Susan: Second Language Is Holding My Son Back

Hi Susan

Please, I need some help.

We speak English at home, as my husband is Scottish. I, however, come from a German family and wanted my children to attend a German school, where German is offered as a second language. My son is in currently in 4th grade, and is having a major problem with German. I am pulling my hair out. I would like to know how I can assist him in progressing.



Dear Gertraud

Learning a second language is a good thing, as it improves brainpower. Studying the brains of 105 people, 80 of whom were bilingual, researchers at University College London found that learning a new language altered gray matter in the same way exercise builds muscles. However, learning a second language can be really challenging and an obstacle in the road to success.

In learning a second language we need to follow the same steps as when learning a first language:

  • We need to develop a proper understanding of the language
  • We need to be able to communicate in that language
  • We need to learn to read and write the language

1. Understanding

The only way to become proficient in any language is to get enough opportunities to hear that language. There must be enough repetition (heard and spoken) of the same words, phrases and grammatical structures.

A practical way of providing a child with enough opportunities to hear language, is to let him listen to stories or recordings in that language. The story must be no more than 10-minutes long. Make a recording of this story, taking pains to read it as clearly as possible. Alternatively, you can buy a suitable story. You will also need a CD-player, iPod or MP3-player with an auto-reverse function.

This recording, in your case German, must now be played to your son daily for at least an hour. However, it is not necessary for him to sit still and listen to the story. Rather, a background of language must be created, so that he can continue with his other daily activities against this background. The volume should be set so that the words will be clearly audible, but not so loud that it is disturbing. The recording could, for example, play while he is getting ready for school in the mornings, and while being transported to and from school.

After at least six weeks, the same procedure must be followed with a new story. Your son must listen to it continually, again for at least six weeks.

2. Communicating

Speak German with your son on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Encourage him to respond in German as well.

3. Reading and writing

Make little word cards, with the German words on the front, and the English translation on the reverse. For example, if the word “morgen” is on the front, the word “tomorrow” will be on the reverse. Let your son start by studying five word cards; add five new word cards to the pile, every time he knows the meaning of the words, and can read and spell them correctly. Regularly review and test old word cards.

Improving a child’s cognitive skills will greatly accelerate the process of learning a second language. Consider subscribing him to Edublox Online Tutor, specifically Development Tutor.

Gertraud, I trust that the advice above will help your son on the road to success.

Best wishes,


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More about Susan

Susan is an educational specialist in the field of learning problems and dyslexia and has a B.A. Honors in Psychology and B.D. degree from the University of Pretoria. Early in her professional career Susan was instrumental in training over 3000 teachers and tutors, providing them with the foundational and practical understanding to facilitate cognitive development amongst children who struggle to read and write. With over 25 years of research to her name Susan conceptualized the Edublox teaching and learning methods that have helped thousands of children who were struggling academically to read, learn and achieve. In 2007, Susan opened the first Edublox reading and learning clinic and now there are 25 Edublox clinics internationally. Her proudest moments are when she sees a child who had severe learning difficulties come top of their class after one or two years at Edublox. Susan always takes time to collect the ‘hero’ stories of learners whose self-esteem is lifted as their marks improve.