5 Steps to Improving Second Language Skills

Second languages are a cause of much frustration to parents. Unlike science or maths, there is little that can be memorised to pass language subjects. Even if a child commits rules of grammar to memory, this will not help with vocabulary, or the large number of exceptions that exist in any language. Here are some proven steps parents can take to remedy it:



  1. 1.    There is No Substitute for Immersion

Where possible, place your child in an environment in which the language is used. So if you mostly speak English at home, encourage your children to spend time with Mandarin speaking neighbours.

It is critical to find a personal tutor, who can carry on conversations in the given language. Not simply homework, but constant conversations.

Remember that the speed of learning is based on the “feedback loop” – the faster your child can receive corrections in speaking and writing habits, the faster her pace of improvement will be.

The feedback loop is fastest when there is someone to converse with directly, and too slow in the form of homework. If your child makes a mistake on a comprehension exercise, and has to wait for the school teacher to point it out, more than 24 hours might pass between making the mistake and receiving the correction.

Red pencil sticking out between pages of a book


  1. 2.    Translation Exercises

This is a simple exercise if you are literate in the required languages.

Get a copy of any text that is below your child’s reading level, and have your child write a translation of it in her second language. Set a limit to the workload and do it daily (e.g. translate two pages a day).

Don’t pick a text that matches your child’s actual (mother tongue) reading level, as it will degenerate into an exercise in futility. Why? Well if you were learning Mandarin right now, you could try to translate something simple like a Goosebumps story from English. But if you try to translate the last Jane Austen novel you read, you would probably give up by the end of page one. The exercise must be challenging, but not impossible.

There will be times when your child totally lacks the words to make the translation – in such cases, have them write the words in their mother tongue (so a translation could look like an odd English – Mandarin hybrid.) The number of times they must resort to their mother tongue will illustrate their weakness in the second language.

If you are not literate in both the required languages, contact one of our highly qualified, one-to-one tutors. Our database of MOE trained educators can meet any of your child’s needs.




  1. 3.    Reset the Language on Your Child’s Devices

Does your child have a problem with Tamil? English? Mandarin? All those languages are in their electronic devices. So set a new rule:

They can only use their phone, tablet, etc. if the default language is set to their second language. If they play video games, make sure their computer or gaming console is set to their second language also.

This creates a strong impetus for them to look up the meaning of different words.

(You can use this same trick on yourself when attempting to learn a foreign language)




  1. 4.    Focus on a Core Set of Words, not on Building a Massive Vocabulary

Worry about a huge vocabulary after your child has mastered “core” words.

Most languages rotate around a central group of words, which are used in much greater frequency than others. In Mandarin, for example, recognition of just 150 characters is enough to read most e-mails and website content. In English, 300 words make up 65% of all written material.

The place to find these core words are in beginner level learning materials, in e-mails and websites (remember what we said about setting device languages in point 3), and consumer magazines.

So don’t worry about exposing your child to high literature and thick novels from the start – that’s for later on. When proficiency is the main worry, direct them toward common, everyday media. This is more likely to bring about a passing grade than struggling through a historical epic.


  1. 5.    Focus on Constant Practice, not Intense Practice

Languages are best improved through constant use, not intense bursts. In other words, it is better to make your child practice for 30 minutes a day, than to make her practice for four hours in a marathon, once-a-week session.

First, it is less frustrating and stressful. Even adults cannot cope with the stress of thinking, writing, and speaking in another language for a stretch of several hours, let alone a child.

Second, words are not retained when they are memorised in a single session. Words have to be used, applied in actual writing or conversation, for the mind to retain them. You may have had the experience of memorising a word from a dictionary, and then being utterly unable to recall it when you needed it – this would be the reason.

Does your child struggle with a second language? Comment and tell us about it, and like us on Facebook so we can send you more educational tips.

Image Credits:

Nazareth College, Horla Varlan, OTA Photos, Popfatticus,