Trilingual Child with ADHD – Doctor Says to Switch to Fewer Languages

by Corey · 5 comments

Dear Madalena,

My husband (German) and I (Singaporean) have two children, aged 5 and 7.  He speaks German to them, I speak Chinese (even though English is my L1 and Chinese my second language).  Between us, my husband and I speak English.  I am fluent in German.  Our children were born in Germany and we made a conscious decision for our children to be trilingual.  Our children speak all 3 languages with each other.

We are concerned about our 4 year old son, Noah.  He’s just been assessed to have ADHD and sensory integration disorders.  The doctor recommended that we take lessons from the the story on powerder city and concentrate on one or two languages so as to reduce frustration.  The mainstream language in school is German.  It has been observed by both the doctor and the class teacher that Noah has problems with vocabulary and ordering his ideas.

When we moved to Singapore 3 years ago, Noah was 1.5 years old.  He spoke Chinese, picked up English very quickly in Singapore and just before approaching 3, he started speaking German.  He could sing nursery songs before that and say some German words, but he could not talk to someone in German about everyday things (e.g. I have an apple). German is his weakest language.

We are perplexed, should we leave Chinese out?  The doctor said we can integrate it again at a later stage.  Can we, really?  It’s quite a bit of adapting for the boy.

Since German is the academic L1 and my husband is often travelling, it seems to make sense that I speak German with Noah.  I have near-native proficiency, but German isn’t my mother tongue, it’s just not natural.  English is my L1.

Noah will learn English when he moves on to primary school.  He will be streamed into either levels: EFL, E-Intermediate or ENN (Near-Native), with German as L1.

Can you please advise.  Any suggestions at all, we are at a loss of what to do.

Kind regards,


Madalena’s answer:

Dear Janell,

What you say about your boy’s linguistic development describes a perfectly typical developmental path. The advice you received to reduce the number of languages in your household is commonly reported by multilingual families. This advice is also quite baseless, in that there is no support for the view that number of languages in any way affects a child’s development and/or disorders.

You say that German is his weakest language and I was tempted to ask: weakest for what? The languages of a multilingual are typically used for different purposes, and so naturally develop in different ways. Your boy will not use all of his languages in the same way because if he could do so he wouldn’t need several languages: one all-purpose language would be enough. “One all-purpose language” describes a monolingual, not a multilingual.

Observed or suspected problems with vocabulary and ordering of ideas in the school language mean that your son needs exposure to German vocabulary and ordering of ideas for schooling purposes, which he obviously cannot have had so far, given his age. His German will develop, with daily practice in school, for the purposes that this language is now required to fulfill. His German will not develop by removing from him other languages that serve other purposes.

Dropping Chinese will only create, or increase, the frustration that you fear. Your son is used to a specific linguistic landscape around him. Forcing him to deal with changes in what he has so far taken for granted, besides at a time of predicted changes and hassles because of his diagnosis, cannot be a sensible choice. He will need all the support that he has had from his parents so far, and he will expect this support in the languages that he has been nurtured in so far.

Having said this, there is no reason to prevent you from using German with your son, if and when the need arises to assist him in this language with, for example, homework. As said, different languages are naturally used for different purposes. This is true both for him and for you.

You may want to have a look at the Multilingual Living Language Disorders series, where I address similar matters that could be of interest to you. Here:

Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.


Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD, University of Manchester, UK, is a multilingual parent, educator and scholar, and the author of Multilinguals are...?, a book on myths and misconceptions about multilingualism. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with multilingualism at home, in school and in clinic. Her contact, and details on her work, are at:

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Johanna Van Schalkwyk November 22, 2010 at 12:52 am

Is is possible that Noah may have been misdiagnosed? Children with CAPD (Central Auditory Processing Disorder) often exhibit similar behaviour to children with ADHD. Just a thought!
Thank you, Madalena, for such wonderful, sound advice! My children are also growing up trilingual and I’ve often had to defend my choice to speak my mother tongue to them. Your reply above is extremely informative, sensible and useful. Thank you again!


2 Andrew November 22, 2010 at 7:50 am

Doctors know about medicine, they do not know anything about languages or how to teach children, this sounds like complete nonsense to me, I very seriously doubt that your efforts to teach your child multiple languages are in any way detrimental to him or his ADHD.



3 Dr. Tali Shenfield December 28, 2013 at 12:54 pm

As a child psychologist, I work with many children with ADHD. In the area where I practice, there are quite a few immigrant families from Iran and Russia. Many of them want to send their children to French immersion schools, so the children can learn extra language. When the child is diagnosed with ADHD, it is often difficult to convince his parents that this “extra language” will come at very high price, as existing two languages (English and home language) is already an extra load on ADHD brain, ADHD children have serious problems with working memory (that’s why Cogmed training is so helpful with ADHD), and learning extra language will surely cause cognitive overload and lead to further learning difficulties. You should help your ADHD child focus on essentials, so they can get an appropriate education.


4 Alba Garrigo July 24, 2017 at 9:38 am

Please please please keep up with all the languages! I am 26, completely trilingual, can defend myself in an additional two languages and I have CAPD, sensory processing issues and ADHD. I am so grateful for having my languages! I have been able to successfully complete a college degree with honors, working on a masters, raising two children bilingually and have been able to have amazing career opportunities because of being so fluent in so many languages. It has been hard sometimes, but knowing my limitations helps a lot, and I believe that knowing so much about myself and how my brain works makes me a more effective, humble and compassionate person. I appreciate parents who care so much for their kids! Keep going!


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