Growing Up Bilingual


Language is around us nearly every instant. We use language to communicate our thoughts, to pretend and dream, to connect with others, and to learn about our world and beyond. For some, these linguistic attributes are doubled or even tripled. In fact, most people around the globe are bilingual or multilingual, making up 60% of the world’s population.[1] In other countries that percentage is magnified— 99% of people in Luxembourg and 95% of people in Latvia speak more than one language.[2] Even in the United States, which is commonly considered to be a monolingual country, one-fifth of children over the age of five speak a language other than English at home.[3]

But are the effects of growing up bilingual or multilingual negative or positive?  There are arguments on both sides of this issue. Studies in the earlier half of the 20th century have indicated that bilingualism negatively affects intellectual, educational, and emotional development.[4] Specifically, that knowing one language restricts the possibility for learning another language given that proficiency in one language reduces the skills in the other.[5] Under this theory, bilingualism has a negative effect on personality development and linguistic skills because human beings have a limited potential capacity for learning – there is only so much the brain can absorb.[6] This opinion was the bedrock of 1930s Nazi ideology sustaining that the ‘purity’ of a nation is foundational, noting that the ‘purity’ of a nation had a strong relationship between a people and the language.[7] An early supporter of this idea was Karl Alexander von Müller who claimed that the Polish German population of Upper Silesia were mentally inferior to other Nazi Germans as a result of their bilingualism.[8] Otto Jespersen, a Danish linguist, also expressed a negative opinion about the effects of bilingualism on children’s learning abilities.[9] His research indicated adverse effects of bilingualism on the retention or understanding of subjects like vocabulary, spelling, history, and geography.[10]

However, empirical studies also suggest that bilingualism has a positive effect on the brain, specifically the cognitive creativity of children and heightened development of divergent thinking later on.[11] Peering deeper into the brain to investigate how bilingualism interacts with cognitive and neurological systems, researchers have found that when a bilingual person uses one language, the other language is involuntarily activated at the same time.[12] In other words, when a person hears a word, the brain begins to guess what that word might be before it is finished by accessing one’s personal word bank to find a match for that sound. [13] For instance, when one hears “more,” their brain’s language system will likely activate words like “morning” and “mortgage”. For those who are bilingual or multilingual, this activation is not limited to a single language, triggering other words no matter the language to which they belong.[14] For instance, a Romanian bilingual may subconsciously think of words like “morcovi” and “mormînt” in addition to words like “morning” and “mortgage” when they hear the word “more”.[15] Thus, a bilingual child may be notably better at concept formation and pattern recognition than a monolingual child because of early exposure to a more complex associative environment by virtue of their two languages.

In contrast to earlier research, Barry McLaughlin argues that the negative effects on personality and academic performance are not caused by bilingualism, but by the complications that arise from one’s bicultural status, particularly having to adjust constantly to two ways of life and expression.[16] These social and cultural conflicts are heightened and truly affect child development when members of a minority group are subjected to discrimination and come from a low socioeconomic background.[17] Because their language and cultural values are not appreciated by society at large, they are seen as “otherable.”[18] Under McLaughlin’s theory, this is the main isolated phenomenon that negatively impacts intellectual and behavioral development when it comes to bilingual children.[19]

The United States often labels itself a “nation of immigrants,” yet the slightest echo of a foreign language in a room often sparks tension. Social media videos featuring people being told to “speak English” or to “go back to wherever the f— you come from” go viral regularly on Facebook and Instagram.[20] As a nation, we have had a troubled history dealing with non-English speakers. During the Civil Rights Movement, Congress enacted the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 (BEA).[21] Intended as a way to assist immigrant communities following the 1965 repeal of the “national-origin system,” the legislation acted as a guide for state and local policymakers to assist language minority students with limited English speaking ability.[22] Congress has amended this act numerous times ultimately absorbing it into the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).[23] The NCLB alters the government’s approach to bilingual students’ education. The NCLB’s primarily emphasizes standardized testing as a measure to determine performance, and because many bilingual students take the same standardized tests as other students, school districts with many immigrant families face a disadvantage [24], especially when considering McLaughlin’s research.

Is speaking more than one language problematic for children? It turns out the answer to this question is not simple. It is wrapped up in complicated psychological, social, policy, and legislative concerns. However, with the right understanding and policy implementations, bilingualism or multilingualism can favorably contribute to the future of child development and education.


[1] “Multilingual People.” Language Learning, ILanguages, 2016,

[2] Europeans and Their Languages, European Commission, Feb. 2006,

[3] Heller, M. (1990). Bilingualism – R. Appel and P. Muysken, Language contact and bilingualism. London and Baltimore, MD: Edward Arnold, 1987. Pp. 213. Language in Society, 19(3), 403-406.

[4] Al-Amri, Majid N. “Effects of Bilingualism on Personality, Cognitive and Educational Developments: A Historical Perspective.” , American Academic & Scholarly Research Journal , Jan. 2013,

[5] Id.

[6] Heller, M. (1990). Bilingualism – R. Appel and P. Muysken, Language contact and bilingualism. London and Baltimore, MD: Edward Arnold, 1987. Pp. 213. Language in Society, 19(3), 403-406.

[7] Al-Amri, Majid N. “Effects of Bilingualism on Personality, Cognitive and Educational Developments: A Historical Perspective.” , American Academic & Scholarly Research Journal , Jan. 2013,

[8]  Id.

[9]  Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Marian, Viorica, and Anthony Shook. “The Cognitive Benefits of Being Bilingual.” Cerebrum: the Dana Forum on Brain Science 2012 (2012): 13. Print.

[13] Marian, V & Spivey, M 2003, ‘Bilingual and monolingual processing of competing lexical items’ Applied Psycholinguistics, vol 24, no. 2, pp. 173-193.

[14]  Id.

[15]  Id.

[16] Wagner, D. (1980). B. McLaughlin, Second language acquisition in childhood. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1978. Pp. 239. Language in Society, 9(1), 135-137.

[17]  Id.

[18]  Id.

[19]  Id.

[20] Bever, Lindsey. “’Tell Them to Go Back Where They Belong’: J.C. Penney Customer’s Racist Tirade Caught on Video.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 22 Dec. 2016,

[21] Klein, Alyson. “No Child Left Behind Overview: Definitions, Requirements, Criticisms, and More.” Education Week, Editorial Project in Education, 20 Apr. 2018,

[22] Id.

[23] “No Child Left Behind and Bilingual Education.” Findlaw,

[24] Id.

A Forgotten Gesture

Samantha Smith, Samantha’s Letter (November, 1982),

Unease about North Korea’s nuclear capability has been growing steadily for the past few months, but that unease escalated when Kim Jong Un recently said he would attack the US territory of Guam.[1] A recent survey shows 94% of Americans fear nuclear war with North Korea.[2] National fear of an aerial attack of this magnitude draws parallels to the Cold War and the fear of that time. Yet, it also brings to mind a story about a young girl from Maine, whose innocent, but impactful gesture made both sides of the Cold War mourn her death.[3] In 1982, Samantha Smith taught us that a profoundly human act has the power to influence international diplomacy.

Ten-year-old Samantha Smith from Manchester, Maine wrote to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov seeking to understand the interminable tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. Samantha’s letter read as follows:[4]


          Dear Mr. Andropov,

          My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren’t, please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight.


        Samantha Smith


The likelihood that Samantha’s letter would garner a response or even reach the margins of political influence was particularly low. After all, she was ten years old, and an American. Despite this, Soviet President Andropov took notice. He not only read Samantha’s letter, but published it in a national newspaper called the Pravda – it was a gesture that left a lasting impression on the Soviet people.[5] In his response to Samantha’s letter, President Andropov wrote[6]:
“…. In America and in our country there are nuclear weapons—terrible weapons that can kill millions of people in an instant. But we do not want them to be ever used….

Samantha Smith went on to be known as “America’s Youngest Ambassador”.[7] President Andropov invited Samantha to visit the Soviet Union. In the summer of 1983, Samantha flew to the Soviet Union to visit Moscow and Leningrad.[8] She also spent time in Artek, a Soviet pioneer camp, with children her own age. Samantha’s visit was broadcasted on two Soviet TV channels, which gave the United States a human face for the Soviet people.[9] While in Artek, Samantha shared a dormitory with nine other Soviet girls.[10] Her time at this Soviet pioneer camp was spent swimming in the Black Sea, studying the Russian language, and learning native songs and dances.[11] In Moscow, Samantha was greeted with a Press Conference where she declared that the Soviet people were “just like us” and that they didn’t want war either.[12] In America, Samantha Smith was featured on the Tonight Show and the Disney Channel as a young spokesperson for peace.

At the age of thirteen, Samantha Smith passed away in a plane crash; both the US and the Soviet Union mourned. The Soviet government responded to her death by issuing a postage stamp in her honor and naming a mountain in her memory.[13] President Mikhail Gorbachev also sent a letter to Samantha’s mother, Jane Smith; he wrote:[14]


“Everyone in the Soviet Union who has known Samantha Smith will forever remember the image of the American girl who, like millions of Soviet young men and women, dreamt about peace, and about friendship between the peoples of the United States and the Soviet Union.”


Before her death, Samantha addressed the Children’s Symposium held in Kobe, Japan.[15] In her last speech as a young ambassador, she recommended that U.S. and Soviet leaders exchange granddaughters for two weeks once a year – it was Samantha’s strong belief that a leader would not attack a country “his granddaughter was visiting.”[16]

Many people in the United States viewed Samantha Smith’s trip as an elaborate PR stunt.[17] To others, however, it was a symbolic gesture. Regardless of its origins, Samantha’s story disrupted the narrative that the Soviet Union, as a nation, was single-mindedly committed to perpetuating nuclear warfare. Samantha shows us that while distance, mistrust, and fear are realities of the modern world, it is also necessary to humanize the people on the other side of that divide. Samantha’s journey demonstrates that sometimes alternative modes of diplomacy can alter the dialogue of international affairs.


President Reagan meeting with President Gorbachev three months after the plane crash. Geneva Summit, November, 1985.


About the Author: Patrick Opran is a 2L at Penn State Law.


[1] Euan McKirdy, Zachary Cohen and Ivan Watson, North Korea says Guam strike plan ready within days (August 10, 2017),

[2] CNN via telephone by SSRS, REL7B – NORTH KOREA (August 8, 2017)

[3] Arthur Frederick, Samantha Smith, the schoolgirl whose desire for peace made…, ( August 28, 1985),

[4] Samantha Smith, Samantha’s Letter (November, 1982),

[5] Gale Warner and Michael Shuman, Citizen diplomats: pathfinders in Soviet-American relations and how you can join them (1987),

[6] Yuri Andopov, Yuri Andropov’s Response to Samantha’s Letter (1983),

[7] Gale Warner and Michael Shuman, Citizen diplomats: pathfinders in Soviet-American relations and how you can join them (1987),

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Staff, Samantha Smith dies in plane crash, (2009),

[14] Mikhail Gorbachev, Letter to Jane Smith, (August, 1985)


[16] Samantha Smith, Look Around and See Only Friends (December 26, 1983),

[17] Alice-Leone Moates, Yes, Samantha, there’s a Soviet bear, The Philadelphia Inquirer. p. A11., (July 12, 1983).