Tag Archives: education

National Education: UK vs USA

18 Sep

Sharon Takao’s recent post on National Education: China vs Japan struck an unexpected chord with me. My thoughts on multi-culturalism and how to balance different national perspectives tend to focus on our life in Asia and the experience of being Westerners immersed, to varying degrees, in Chinese culture and society. But Sharon’s post reminded me of the subtler multi-culturalism within my own family. I am British and my husband Ethan is American and although we share a language and broad cultural background, the phrase “divided by a common language” can sometimes seem uncomfortably accurate.

Sharon’s story reminded me of one day earlier this summer, when I was making dinner and listening to my husband talking to our two sons about family history.  Ethan is a direct descendent of Paul Revere, hero of the American War of Independence, famous for his midnight ride to Lexington and Concord to warn patriots that “the British are coming.” You can probably guess where this is heading. Paul Revere is our son’s 7 times great-grandfather so it’s right that they should know his story and feel proud of his accomplishments. But as I listened to Ethan’s stories about the brave, clever American patriots outsmarting stupid, bullying “lobsterbacks” so they could gain freedom from the injustice of British rule, I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable. I understood that he was telling them simplified stories they could relate to, but I also didn’t want them growing up believing only one side of a complex story.  So I spoke up and pointed out that the country was divided at the time, with many Americans still considering themselves to be British subjects, that many had in fact been born in Britain, and that the story was not a simple one of good guys and bad guys. It was not as if the Americans were fighting for independence from a colonial power who had come in and occupied their country. They themselves had been part of the occupying force who had taken the country from its native inhabitants, then as they settled down decided they no longer wanted to pay taxes to the home country.

Maybe that’s another gross over-simplification, but it comes down to what Sharon pointed out, that each country teaches its own version of history, casting its own actions in the most positive light. And if you are married to someone who grew up with a different version of history than your own, you need to find some accommodation between the two. In fact the American War of Independence does not play a major role in history as taught in British schools. It is one in a series of narratives of countries colonised and lost, of Empire created and dissolved. In seven years of secondary school history courses, the only time I can remember it mentioned is as a contributory factor to the French revolution! By contract, in America it is of course a compulsory part of every child’s education and an important source of beliefs and discourses about what the nation stands for and represents.

The first time the subjectivity of history really came home to me I was already 20 (which means I had lived that long more or less accepting what I had learned in school), when the Battle of Agincourt came up in conversation with a French friend and we realised he had never heard of it. What is taught in British schools as a glorious victory is quietly ignored in France. Fortunately passing centuries take the sting out of defeat and the further away these events are, the more they become of purely academic interest. On the day in question I realised that 200 plus years aren’t quite enough to erase national loyalties within my family. Hearing my concerned tone as I tried to bring another perspective to his history lesson, Ethan did modify his story, somewhat, and acknowledge the uncertainties and divided loyalties of that period of history. We laughed about it later and I said it was a good thing I wasn’t German or Japanese, from a country that America has fought a war with in living memory, or Iraqi for that matter!

Chinese-Japanese marriages must contain similar tensions, not to mention Anglo-French ones, with centuries of conflict to draw on. Sometimes the tensions are greatest closest to home: Anglo-Scottish and Anglo-Irish marriages must have plenty of fodder for diverging perspectives. I would be interested to hear other’s thoughts and experiences on this subject, it may be that I am over-sensitive. Maybe some people are good at rising above their own versions of history, allowing their children to absorb one side of the story only, but I have realised that within my family we need to find room for both sides, or at least the acknowledgement that history is complex and multi-faceted.

About me: originally from the UK, I first came to China as a student in the 1980s and my life has intersected with China one way and another ever since. For the past 8 years I have been based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province China with my American husband and our two sons aged 6 and 11. I work freelance for non-profit organisations and on my own writing, editing and translation projects.

National Education: China vs. Japan

14 Sep

Recently there have been demonstrations, assemblies, and a hunger strike to fight against Moral & National Education (so-called ‘brain-washing education’) which was to be introduced into all primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong within the next 3 years.

120,000 people assembled outside government headquarters on 8 Sep against the introduction of Moral and National Education

Fortunately the HK Chief Executive said the government would leave the decision to include the subject, as well as the subject content, to the schools. That has stopped the hunger strike and the week-long assembly outside the government building.

I think that since the handover, HK people should have anticipated a gradual ‘nationalization’ by the Chinese government. Most countries mainly teach their school kids the positive history of their country – be it a victory or a defeat in a war – the home country is mainly right. At least that’s what I thought until I talked about this with my husband.

Me: I just don’t understand why the HK people are so radical. Come on, all countries are doing the same at school.

My husband: No, Japan is not like that.

Me: (suspiciously) Oh really? Did they teach you about the Nanking Massacre in school?

My husband: We are not sure if it really happened. Why would it be in the textbook?

Me: Uhhh…

So there are no exceptions. My husband was brought up in the Japanese education system.  To me, history is history. We always say, “we must learn from history in order not to make the same mistakes”. But if dwelling on history could ruin the current friendship between two countries, I’d rather have everyone forget the past.

If you were me, would you tell your child that his dad’s people were part of a crazy killing machine yet they say they are not sure if the massacre really happened? Or maybe we should let the kids find the truth out by themselves? In this world of propaganda, what is the truth anyway?


Contributing author Sharon Takao is originally from HK. She lives in Tokyo with her Japanese husband and 3 year-old son. She works at a local advertising, event planning company. She enjoys reading, writing, singing, dancing and playing basketball. She is a member of the online writing community Fanstory.com

Faith, and the Lack Thereof

5 Apr

My husband and I are raising our daughters M and J to be practicing Catholics, but I don’t believe in God. While I see no conflict in those two facts, I know that many people do.

My husband and I agree that Christianity and science need not be at odds. He sees the Bible as an attempt by fallible humans’ to explain and share the plan and actions of an infallible God. Truths are within the pages of Bible, but it is up to the individual to understand what it teaches, sometimes literally, but frequently allegorically. This is a pathetically simplified way to look at it, but he and I simply differ at where we draw the line between the literal and allegory in the Bible. I see the Bible as a historical document that captures an ancient understanding of the world, but also demonstrates the inherent imperfection of translating language, context, and cultural assumptions to a different place and time.

While our differences in theology may not cause conflict, it’s certainly not easy.

A year ago, M, then aged 4, had a bombshell question. “Who took care of the very very very first person on earth when they were a baby?”

This is such a huge question. At the crux is the matter of how humans came to be. It’s one of those topics you do not bring up unless you’re either aching for a fight, or are certain that everyone in the room sees eye to eye on.

There were two answers to the question, I told the girls. It would be hard to understand how they could both be right, but I would try to explain. First I told them about God creating Adam from the earth. I explained that, as far as I understand, God made Adam as a grown-up, and Eve too. They had babies, I told the girls, and they raised them.

“So they got married?” asked J. She was clearly delighted at the prospect of a wedding featuring front and centre in the creation of everything.

I reminded my daughters that there was another story and provided a very simplified explanation of evolution. I pointed out that, while they share basic traits like five fingers per hand, hair colour, and dimples or a lack thereof with me and my husband, M and J aren’t just a mixture of the two of us. They’re not exactly like each other, either, identical twinhood notwithstanding. Offspring, I explained, are always a teeny bit different from their parents. I told the girls that the differences add up over the generations. I used our cat Penelope, tigers, and their shared ancestors as an illustration. I didn’t get into survival of the fittest; I figured that they had plenty to think about as it was. I gave them a second example using a wolves-and-dogs scenario, and then finally got around to primates. It was refreshing to have this discussion without encountering the common misconception that “we used to be monkeys.” As M pointed out, “So Penelope’s great great, lots of greats, grandma was tigers’ great great great grandma.”

It was tempting to stop here, but that would have been chickening out.

I pulled out a children’s Bible, as well as our copy of Evolution Revolution. I read the relevant passages of both books to the girls, and Melody began to get angry. She wanted an answer, and fast.

I explained to her that, long long ago, when the Bible was written, its authors did their best to explain God’s actions. Now that we understand that animals evolve over time, we can understand that God made humanity through evolution, and that there was a first man and a first woman, but that their mommies (“and daddies,” J reminded me) were monkeys. Their monkey mommies and daddies raised them, but (and this is where I just had to make it up on the fly) it wasn’t until they were grown up that they realized that they were different from their parents, that they were humans and not monkeys.

J was satisfied with the explanation, but M had a zillion more questions. Unfortunately, it was time for bath. She burst into tears. “I just want the answer!” she sobbed.

I didn’t reach that point of frustration until I was seven, and that’s when I became an atheist. There was no one who could resolve religion and science for me, so I chose science. I didn’t want M to start down that admittedly lonely road at the tender age of four. I just held her, and told her that I understood her desire to understand everything right now, but that we were going to have to take our time, refining our understanding and answering questions over days, and maybe years.

I told her something I only really came to understand in my mid-twenties, mostly thanks to my husband: For many many things, there simply isn’t a single right answer. The understanding of the subjectivity of perspective is a gift, I think, that multicultural families of all stripes, of necessity, share.

Sadia’s parents are nominally Muslim. She is a higher education business analyst, and has spent large chunks of her life in each of the UK, the US, and Bangladesh. She is married to an American soldier of Caucasian and Mexican descent who likes to add “American” as an option to standardized forms requesting self-identification of ethnicity. With their 5-year-old identical twins daughters and all-American foundling of a cat, they live just north of the Mexico-US border in El Paso, Texas. This post is derived from posts previously published on Sadia’ personal blog, Double the Fun.

Historiography

1 Apr

I have a term paper due in 16 days.  As I write this, I am perched on the edge of my creaky steno chair.  A space heater is cooking my feet.  My laptop is situated in the half-square-metre of space available on my desk.  Finn McMissile and Mater are grinning at me from among the broken toys awaiting repair.  There are crumpled tissues of unknown provenance.  And the user’s manual for a George Foreman Grill….

My paper is meant to explore evidence of cosmopolitanism in ancient Rome, and then hopefully draw some parallels between now and then.  Possibly shed some light on the social construct of race, in all its arbitrary and divisive mystery.  And maybe break it down, just a little bit more, in this slow and precarious progress toward an “us” without a “them”.  But I did not expect to be confronted with the vitriol of two hundred years of scholarship.  Of black scholars fighting for voice.  A white scholars fighting for silence.  And the well-meaning of all races writing and rewriting and then vehemently protecting their personal empirical interpretation statement of history.

Emphasis on the ‘story.

I chose this topic because Kwame Anthony Appiah’s explanation of cosmopolitanism makes such perfect sense to me.  We don’t need cultural homogeneity.  We don’t need for all of us to be the same.  We need to accept that we are all different people, with different traditions, and different values.  We need to suspend our judgement unless and until people are getting hurt.  And we are obligated to educate and to become educated.  To say, “Hey, man.  I don’t understand why you’re doing that.  Maybe if you explain it to me, we can work out a better solution.”  This learning before judging, this conversing before condemning – imagine the world we would have if all of us could work that way.

It’s the sort of idealism I teach my children.  And I do that because I believe it to be possible.  I believe that choosing to learn in the face of ignorance, anger, fear, and condemnation is the bravest act that anyone can commit.  Second only to protecting others from harm.

Perched on this chair in this space surrounded by tasks not completed, obligations not fulfilled, projects not initiated; my head is spinning with the implications of these words:

“History is not about fact.  It is about interpretation.” – Maghan Keita

In this space with the detritus of my life stacked all around me, on a continent where fear kills minds and boys with brown skin and women in black robes and thousands of other faces I will never know or see or love….

It is very, very hard to feel brave.

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I’m a mother, corporate refugee, grad student, quiet activist and child care provider.  I live in Canada and write about grace, joy, hilarity, leg hair, living healthy, and learning with kids over at The Valentine 4: Living Each Day.

Teaching My Son to Write

29 Feb

I’m a graduate student in educational theory (Master of Arts, Integrated Studies, to be precise).  For several weeks, I’ve been immersed in feminist theory, race theory, Marxist theory, the birth of sociology, the jargonistic musings of Judith Butler on the intentionally difficult to comprehend Foucault….  And I have the kind of cold that kept me awake until 4am last night with fever chills and has left me giddy and directionless, today.

Forgive me if this post is somewhat less than concise.

Kwame Anthony Appiah has written and spoken often about his reasoned disavowal of race.  He doesn’t believe there are any races, and deconstructs both the original concept – as defined in North America with the African slave trade – and the current relevance of this sort of cultural leftover in his Tanner Lecture on Human Values (1994), among other papers, interviews and speeches.  I mean, we’ve established that people of all ethnicities are equally capable, moral, feeling, loving, hurting people….  Right?

So, why do we need to talk about it anymore?

Well, because race is socially determined.  Our culture tells us what race we are, establishing visible majorities and visible minorities and an increasingly difficult-to-determine mix of bi-racial, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, mixed-race, erm… people.  Black and white, gorgeous and beige, my kids fall into that last category.  And while I’m hoping hard that the strident voice of bell hooks and the educated bluesman musings of Cornel West remain sources of profound pride for American black people; here in Canada – in multicultural Canada – I’d like to see my kids’ generation drop their divisions, deny racial solidarity, and embrace something more like Appiah’s cosmopolitanism.  There is something so calmly appropriate about a theory of philosophy that refuses race, encourages knowledge of other cultures, and denies cultural relativism.  You don’t have to be just like me to be my brother.  I will love you, just the same.  And through my love I’m committed to learning more about you.  But I will NOT stand by and let you hurt people.  We have a human responsibility to protect each other from harm, even if it’s you – my brother – who is doing the harming.

To me, that sounds just about perfect.  Multiculturalism without assimilation.  Globally situated learning and citizenship.  And the outright refusal to allow nations to commit crimes against humanity just because their culture or their religion says that they can.  Does it GET better?

And so it was from this warm, fuzzy, I’d-Like-To-Teach-The-World-to-Sing perspective that I sat down with my kids and a bowl of popcorn to watch Discovery Atlas’s China Revealed.

Now, this film was done in 2006.  China was going crazy with preparation for the 2008 Olympics, and aside from a few ethnic Chinese family members, extra kids, students and friends, I really don’t know very much about Chinese culture.  I am NOT an educated observer, here – let me make that very clear.  But it was hard not to stare at the sheer focus demanded of children, in that film.  It was hard not to cover my mouth when a father spoke of beating his young daughter because she didn’t want to return to gymnastics boarding school, in that film.  It was hard not to just stare in fascination at Wushu city, and at thousands of workers performing calisthenics together to ensure an injury-free day at the factory; at adult children with the same single-minded focus to please their parents, to serve their parents, as appears on the faces of elementary school kids.  At the drive.  At the SOLIDARITY – in that film.  (I’m repeating this phrase because I do know that one film cannot adequately capture the depth and nuance of any culture.  There is so much more I need to learn!)

But, HOW can one deny the existence of race in the face of that?  Even while considering the vast differences of language and tradition within China’s borders.  Do we relabel it “culture”, and continue to reach out, hold hands and sing Kumbaya?  My kids will be competing with children from families with similar cultural influences for scholarships, jobs and promotions.  My kids, who have been raised without corporal punishment, who have been encouraged to cooperate before competing, who walked early, talked early, and were reading by age three….  They can’t do simple multiplication, like some of their first generation Chinese Canadian friends can.  My kids have always been given the option to work on reading, work on writing, work on language study, science or do anything else we come up with together in our afterschooling home.  (It really is up to them.)  And they have always been rewarded for their efforts in these areas.  Not punished for their shortcomings.

I’m a little worried that they won’t be prepared for their global reality, fifteen years from now.

Anyway, this post was about teaching my son to write.  I’d decided to post about that before diving into race theory and watching that documentary, and now our little writing exercises read with a decidedly different flavour.  I do apologize.

My Bug asked to learn how to write his name, so I told him I would help him.  I wrote out his name for him to copy, and that was difficult for him.  Frustrating.  I wrote out a letter for him to copy.  Still frustrating.  I printed out a preschoolers’ letter-tracing page from some website we found together.  Didn’t like it.  The dots were overwhelming and made no sense to him.  So, I wrote a letter, just one, with a highlighter and asked him to keep his pencil on the green line.  He took the pencil with some hesitation.  Standard pencils are small and awkward for his three-year-old hand; fat round or triangular pencils are too big and clumsy.  (He’s always preferred paintbrushes.)  But then?  He did it!  HE DID IT!  And asked for a page more.  And then I gave him the parts of the other letters in his name, not all together, just a page of lines, a page of curves, a page of initial connections, all written with electric green highlighter….

And I watched him light up with the joy of his own success.

I don’t know if my kids will be able to compete at the global level.  In many ways, I hope they won’t have to.  But, mostly?  I hope this light, this spark they have – that we can keep it going for as long as possible.  I’m hoping hard for forever 🙂

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I’m a mother, corporate refugee, grad student, quiet activist and child care provider.  I live in Canada and write about grace, joy, hilarity, leg hair, living healthy, and learning with kids over at The Valentine 4: Living Each Day.

Run…I am Talking About Education

22 Feb

It is personal, very personal, not only because I am an insider in the game but because my kids will soon be venturing into the world of formal education. I am not qualified to comment on its steady state of decline in most countries of the world but I can most certainly express my individual viewpoint of how I am utterly disappointed from the little of it I have seen.

My memories of my school days are very pleasant. I have no qualms or complaints about it; but then again nothing about it stands out as exceptional. The reason I am tracing back to my roots is because things have not changed much. I have had the opportunity to work with children in whom I have seen great degrees of diversity. It made me a strong believer in the uniqueness that exists in every child. This puts parents and educators in a significant position to tap this uniqueness. But who has the time for potential? Education today is all about teaching to the test. The year begins with grand new curriculums, new technology on how to teach it; teaching methods to bring out the best in every child to ensure that every child who walks through those school doors walks out feeling successful at the end of the day. Then how come everyone feels so unmotivated and stressed out about school as the year slowly trickles by?

Kids today are taught like lambs, the idea of standing out in a crowd is not necessarily considered a positive. I shudder to think of how this would affect my kids when they make their way into this system. As parents we marvel and cherish every act that our children do, and every word they say everyday and hope that their teacher might notice at least a percentage of their uniqueness. I know this might sound like a mind-boggling task for the educator but logistically speaking it isn’t. A typical classroom consists of 20-25 students, if a teacher were to spend 2 minutes with every child that adds up to 50 minutes of her precious day. Trust me those 2 measly minutes will be cherished by that child everyday.

In my experience I have seen that children thrive when you set high expectations for them. Children want to impress their teacher, get noticed and closely tied to this is the need to succeed. Teaching to the test kills this to a large extent. Teachers today do not have the time to know their students individually, because they walk into their classroom with an agenda to finish what they need they to cover for that day.

A true story I read many years back in a newspaper often comes to mind when I think of children and schools. A teacher once gave her class a theme to draw a picture of their pet for art class. Most of the children drew pictures of dogs, cats, birds, hamsters and other common household pets. One little girl drew a dinosaur as her pet and when the teacher laid her eyes on her drawing she mocked and ridiculed the little girl in front of the entire classroom for her unrealistic picture. Imagine the plight of the little girl and more importantly imagine how it would have trampled her sense of creativity.

I have been listening to Sir Ken Robinson on TED. He talks very passionately about how education kills creativity. He explains how we are taught to be almost robotic, like workers and not encouraged to think out of the box. He says, “Creativity should be given as much importance as literacy.” I agree with him completely, we are so determined as parents and teachers to follow the rulebook on everything we do for our children.

There are nights I spend in bed thinking about why I need a book to tell me how to feed my kids, how to educate them, how to control every possible action that comes from them and redirect it to follow the rule book. Why are my motherly instincts not enough?

I am now making a conscious effort to let them breathe, be themselves. I might be dreaming the impossible because I know they have to ultimately be mainstreamed and follow rules that their formal educational system might demand of them; but for now I plan to celebrate their uniqueness.

We as parents have a huge responsibility towards our children. Brain development in human beings happens most rapidly during early childhood. Children are like little sponges, they soak up everything you offer them. It takes a lot of conscious efforts from our side to let their uniqueness grow. I think this quote from Sir Ken Robinson sums it all up for me,

“What TED celebrates is the gift of the human imagination. We have to be careful now, that we use this gift wisely and that we avert some of the scenarios that we’ve talked about. And the only ways we’ll do it is by seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are and seeing our children for the hope that they are. And our task is to educate their whole being, so they can face this future. By the way—we may not see this future, but they will. And our job is to help them make something of it.”

Reference: Schools Kill Creativity: TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

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Renuka Venkataraman is a contributing author at Multicultural Mothering.

“I was born and raised in Mumbai, India. I lived in Dallas, Texas for almost 15 years and worked as teacher for special needs kids for 10 of those years. I moved to Chengdu in September 2011 with my husband, two kids and our miniature dachshund Zen. I’m looking at motherhood under a very different light here in Chengdu. It has brought a sense of positivity and purpose to my life in many ways I can’t wait to experience and share with all you other Multicultural Moms.”

Thoughts on Learning 3 Languages at Home by Catherine Walter

19 Nov

Catherine: I’m a mom of twins living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I grew up in NYC and spent most of my formative years there although I was born in Warsaw, Poland. My husband is German. And my identical twin girls, Zoe and Luna, were born in Bangkok, Thailand, live in Vietnam and hold dual citizenship (US & German). Growing up I thought I had it tough being torn between two different worlds, but look at them!

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Growing up as a global citizen may come with its particular set of challenges, such as not knowing a sense of belonging or losing touch with your heritage. But it’s the way of the future. Our economy is more globalized and interdependent than ever before. Just look at how the West is relying on Asia to be the engine of growth during the recession. The West doesn’t polarize the world as in the past. Rising stars in the East such as China, are contributing more than ever to the global economy and our lives. And thanks to technological advances and accessibility, we are linked as never before in human history – through online media. The world is getting smaller. In view of these developments, I believe that our children’s future success will depend on how well they relate to those different from them.

As a parent, I feel that one of the best advantages I can give my girls in life is the ability to communicate fluently in several languages. In our home, we each speak our native language to the girls. My husband speaks German to them in the early mornings, after work and on weekends or holidays. Our Vietnamese nanny and maid speak to them in Vietnamese each day except for Sunday; and I speak to them in my American English, which is the language they are most exposed to.

English is not technically my native language, but it’s the one I speak most fluently and have spoken for most of my life. However, this presents me with a dilemma as I essentially do speak Polish: Shouldn’t I pass that language on to my girls as well? But as I moved to NYC when I was 4 years old, I speak Polish with an American accent at the level of a fifth grader. I don’t speak it like a native anymore.

I keep finding in the research that you should choose one language to speak to your child and stick with it. But I have taken creative license with that, and I read the girls Polish poetry at bedtime. They probably won’t learn to speak it this way, but at least they’ll be exposed to rolling r’s, and the diversity of -sh, -zh and -ch sounds, which are so plentiful in Polish. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the experiment will work.

So now that my girls are 15 months old, are we seeing results yet? Nope. I just got back from the pediatrician. Language was a bit weak on the Denver II test behavior chart. It’s used to track their social, fine motor, language, and gross motor skills development in relation to their age. Compared to the rest of the indicators, they seem to be about 3 months behind on language. They are only really using 3 words consistently so far (2 in English and 1 in German). But I’m not worried.

According to our pediatrician, children brought up in several languages do not learn to speak any later then their peers. I also found this in my research. There is apparently no solid, scientific evidence to suggest a delay in speech. However, I did come across anecdotal evidence among parents who sense that multilingual children begin talking a few months later than monolingual children. In the end, I don’t mind if it takes them a bit longer to begin asking “why?” a million times a day.

And I’m not too bothered about them actually speaking all 3 languages all the time. German is the minority language you could say, as they only hear it from Dad (although research shows that a child needs to be exposed to a language 30% of their waking hours to actively speak it, so it just might be enough!). But as long as they have the capacity to understand German, it will be that much easier to learn later in life.

Even if they don’t end up speaking Vietnamese once we’ve moved to another country, at least they have the capacity for tonal languages. It’s the connectivity of the neurons in the brain that will be stimulated and developed. That is what I’m primarily concerned with; overall brain development. Who knows, it may make them better thinkers and communicators than they would have been otherwise.

I leave you with some food for thought: by some accounts, 80% of communication is non-verbal, what are the implications to multilingual/multicultural children?