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!
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.