Can Multilingualism Cause Behavior Problems?

by Madalena · 4 comments

Dear Madalena,

We are bringing up a trilingual little boy of 2.5 years old. I am Greek, my husband is English and our son attends a Norwegian nursery (we have been living in Norway for the past 2 years).

Our son has been separating his languages well for a few months now and hardly brings home any Norwegian words. However, they implied at the nursery that his behavioral problems and lack of concentration might derive from his trilingualism (for example, that he lacks an understanding of the meaning of certain words). Yet, according to the nursery his Norwegian is very good.

I also feel that sometimes when we ask him to wait or explain to him that we will do something first and then do what he wants (wash hand first and then eat, for example) he gets frustrated and it is so hard to tell if he doesn’t understand us or if it is a lack of understanding of the concept of time due to his age.

Thank you so so much for your contributions to the site!



Dear Fay,

Let me start by saying that multilingualism has absolutely nothing to do with issues of behaviour. Blaming multilingualism for all sorts of perceived differences in multilingual children is as common as it is misinformed.

Many behavioural problems reported of multilingual children in the same situation as your son are in fact due to misunderstanding of multilingualism, whether on the part of adults or of children themselves. Small children aged around 3, like your boy’s schoolmates, begin to make objective sense of their surroundings, and react defensively to anything new or strange. Many adults sadly react in this way too: in monolingual settings, speaking several languages indeed appears as “strange”.

My own children, also trilingual, had similar experiences throughout school. Their natural reactions to the unease that they felt around them were then blamed on their multilingualism, not on whoever was causing the unease, in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Be prepared for the next step too: we parents were also told that the “remedy” to our children’s “behavioural problems” was to switch to the school language at home. We didn’t, of course, and our children are now perfectly healthy, happy and typical multilingual adults. I describe the whole story in detail in my book Three is a Crowd?, parts of which are accessible through Google Books.

Lack of concentration is to be expected from two-year-olds. It can’t be easy for babies in nappies to be told to sit still, follow instructions, listen to adults, do things on schedule, say things on cue, and so on, when what they want is to explore on their own their new awareness of the world around them. Your son will learn in time how to behave “properly” in school, like we all had to.

Lastly, what you describe about your son’s understanding of certain instructions matches well-known features of language acquisition in general, which are true of any child regardless of the number of languages involved. These are cognitive and developmental issues, not language problems. Have a look at what I wrote for an Ask-a-Linguist FAQ about language acquisition and, specifically for children’s difficulties with words like before and after, in this section.

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:

Disclaimer: This post and the comments provided below have been provided for informational and entertainment purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any professional financial, medical, legal, or other advice. This post has been published with the full consent of the author. The author has agreed to Madalena Cruz-Ferreira answering the Ask Madalena question publicly as well as readers leaving comments in the comment section below. Multilingual Living makes no representations or warranties and expressly disclaims any and all liability concerning any treatment or action by any person following the information offered or provided within or through this and any other information on this website. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional or medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist. Please read our Terms of Use for more detail or contact us with any questions.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Antonia April 21, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Poor baby! He’s only 2.5 for goodness sake! I agree with everything Madalena says. If they say his Norwegian is good (as good as any language can be at that age) then they are just looking for excuses for normal 2 year old behaviour.
Maybe he comes out with the odd Greek or English word and he’s frustrated because his little friends don’t understand 3 languages like he does? ;o)
Don’t let them discourage or dishearten you.
Good luck!


2 Anita April 21, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Hi, I also agree with Madalena. At this age they start to understand things around them, also it is difficult to handle their own feelings related to anything new or unexpected.
The parents may also evaluate whether they have a usual routine for the day and certain rules, because it might be difficult to the boy to follow nursery rules if at home there are not too much in place.
My little one is 33 months old, so we have also difficult days time to time.
Thanks, Anita


3 Terhemen February 20, 2012 at 9:48 am

Children have the ability to acquire many languages. The little boy will cope,its just a matter of time. Mark my words.


4 Nicki Berry December 23, 2012 at 12:45 am

Hi, we’re an English family living in Finland and I’m also a teacher at the International school. I have observed that most of the behaviour ‘problems’ at school do seem to involve foreign/multilingual children. Interestingly, I don’t find these children at all difficult in most of my lessons but the Finnish teachers seem to struggle with them. My opinion is that most of the behaviour problems are not problems but differences in culturally acceptable behaviour. The Nigerian children cannot sit still and listen to a piece of music. They dance and jig around! Shock horror! We have Greek children too. They sometimes ‘overreact’ to other children, shouting and ‘being aggressive’. Our Greek caretaker doesn’t notice this at all though. He thinks they are quite normal, bright, passionate children. I guess Norway could be a little like Finland – relatively low multiculturalism and quite a strong home culture. Maybe your little one is just different and they need to decide which are behaviour issues and which are cultural differences.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: