All REAP News Blogs December 1, 2020

Rural Parenting in an Urban Setting: Innovative Research by REAP Offers a Glimpse into the Language Environment of Rural Migrant Children in China

What a child hears before age 3 has a profound impact on their language skills development and long-term outcomes. However, little evidence exists on the language environment in which migrant children grow up. New research and technology offer a glimpse into the home language environment of migrant children in the rapidly urbanizing city of Chengdu.
Migrant child sits on her mother’s lap, looking into the camera, as her mother reviews REAP’s survey forms with an enumerator.
Tyler Weisberg

A nurturing home language environment is typically full of conversation between caregivers and their children, whether that is reading, singing, or playing. This kind of lively atmosphere, however, was not the case for Nian Xin, a rural migrant child. 
On the 42nd floor of a shiny, brand-new building, 19 month-old Nian Xin sat in a corner of the living room as his grandma focused her full attention on the roaring television. Occasionally, Nian Xin crawled next to his fatigued grandma, tugging her to play, but his grandma returned the gesture with minutes of yelling for Nian Xin to be quiet and to leave her alone. His parents’ demanding work schedules make it virtually impossible for Nian Xin to spend quality time with them. This absence of interaction can amount to serious consequences as he grows, especially in regards to his school readiness and future academic outcomes. In fact, it is already affecting Nian Xin, who is almost two but can only speak a handful of words. 

Child left alone in his apartment living room, staring at the camera.
Tyler Weisberg

Poor home language environments, meaning little interaction between caregivers and their children, have been commonly observed among children living in rural China. In fact, few parents read or sing to their child–a likely explanation for the staggering 52% of children that have language delays and eventually, poor academic outcomes. 

For rural villagers that migrate to China’s newly risen cities for work, like Nian Xin’s family, little was previously known about the families’ home language environment and their children’s language development. Although roughly 10% of rural children, which is roughly 5 million children, migrate to China’s cities with their parents as they seek higher-paying jobs, many questions remain about the environment they grow up in and their cognitive development:

  • Would living in the cities cause their child’s home language environment and language development to fare more similarly to urban children? 
  • Do rural caregivers bring their parenting practices and beliefs into the urban setting?
  • Why may some migrant households have a better home language environment than others?

To answer these questions, REAP pioneered a study investigating the home language environment and early language skills of children from migrant communities in Chengdu, Sichuan. 

Recruiting the families to understand their situation, however, proved much more difficult than anticipated. At times, we struggled to gain the trust of some caregivers: one caregiver simply decided to storm out of the room while yelling at us. Despite the difficulties, we successfully visited over 100 households in migrant communities of Chengdu. 

Surveys and LENA Technology to Collect First-of-its-Kind Data 

We administered a survey to every household that we visited. The survey asked caregivers about their parenting practices, parenting beliefs, their child’s development, among other topics. We also asked the parents what words their child could say and what words their child could not say out of a standard 113-word inventory in order to measure their child’s language development. 

After the survey, we used the LENA device to gather data on their home language environment. The LENA device is a small recorder that children wear throughout their daily activities, and it measures the number of words they hear, the number of conversation back-and-forth they engage in, as well as how many times they speak. We instructed the caregivers on how to use the LENA device to record for two days. 

Using the LENA technology makes this fieldwork stand out. Many other studies relating to the parenting practices of migrant populations often utilize self-reported measures– the information collected is solely based on what the caregivers answer.  Though self-report measures can provide valuable insights, caregivers may not report the situation accurately, whether intentionally or not. For example, some caregivers may feel pressured to answer a certain way while others can not accurately recall the relevant information. Data collected by the LENA technology, however, is much harder to be subjective or fabricated. As the LENA devices record throughout two entire days, the data collected would be more comprehensive and reflective of migrant households’ reality than ever before. 

Example of a LENA Report that is sent to caregivers.The LENA recordings are then analyzed and used to produce a LENA report, like the one on the right. The reports include meaningful visual displays of overheard speech, conversational exchanges, and the number of times the child speaks. In addition, the graphs depict when the adults and children speak most. 

Material Wealth Disguises a Lack of Parent-Child Interaction

A mere 15 years ago, Chengdu, where our fieldwork took place, was famous for undulating hills of peach trees. Today, it has become blocks of high-rise apartment buildings flanked by six-lane asphalt roads. Many of the migrant families we visited live in these towering buildings; some of the homes were filled with rows of toy cars and piles of colorful toys, while others also had a collection of books and even electronic story-readers. 

While externally it seemed that migrant families in Chengdu had a lot of material goods for the children to play and interact with, many of the families fall short in developing nurturing parenting practices that foster their child’s early language development. 

Language Environment and Language Skills 

Despite living in the developed, urban areas of Chengdu, we found that migrant households overall had poor home language environments. Looking at the data we gathered from LENA, it became evident that caregivers spoke little to the children, and there were few conversation exchanges occurring between caregivers and children.
Overall, the measures of the home language environment in Chengdu’s migrant communities were similar to the ones we studied in rural Shaanxi. However, among households with the poorest home language environments, migrant households had significantly fewer conversation exchanges, and migrant children also spoke less than the children of rural households. In other words, despite better material conditions, migrant children are as vulnerable as rural children to a poor home language environment, and in some cases, even more so.   

Reflecting the overall poor quality of their home language environments, the language skills of the migrant children we surveyed in Chengdu were extremely low, even when compared to urban children half their age. 

A toddler plays with a pink ball while their caregivers sit on the couch behind him looking at their phones.
Tyler Weisberg

Wide Variations

Although the home language environments were generally quite poor, we saw wide variations in both LENA measures and language skills. More specifically, there was at least a six-fold difference between the top and bottom households for any measure of the home language environment, meaning that some families do invest in interacting with their children while others invest very little. 

Child left alone in the living room, holds an empty purple bowl.
Tyler Weisberg
Father reads a picture book with his son at the dining table.
Tyler Weisberg

The Problem is not Economic but Informational and Generational 

To understand more deeply why some caregivers interact with their children more than others, we conducted qualitative interviews with some of the caregivers that we surveyed. 

First, we found that parents are generally aware of the importance of early language development. Most caregivers valued early language development, responding with answers like “I think that the first three years is fundamental.”

Child claps in excitement.
Tyler Weisberg

Despite the awareness, however, some caregivers do not go beyond more materialistic acts of purchasing toys and books to then actively interact with their children. One reason may be that they simply don’t know how. For example, one mother highly valued early language development and regularly bought toys for her child, but explained that “since it is my first child, I do not know much about how to teach my child to speak or how to raise him.” 

Father smiles and holds his baby son’s hand as they pose for a picture.
Tyler Weisberg

Many families with a poor home language environment also had misconceptions. One mother said, “I think it is best to follow nature. When it comes around to the day for my child to start talking, my child will of course start talking because everyone will eventually talk.” Other families comforted themselves with the saying “贵人语迟” (gui ren yu chi), meaning late talkers are smarter and more talented. These responses suggest that parents do not believe that talking to children is necessary to support their language development. 

Grandmother holds onto her granddaughter while trying to comfort her.
Tyler Weisberg
Even if parents do know how to interact with their children in stimulating ways, they may lack the time to engage in such interactions. In the migrant households we visited, many children spent most of their time in the care of their grandparents instead. However, grandparents tended to be substantially less aware of interactive parenting and the importance of early childhood language development compared to parents. For example, one grandmother told us that “Every night, since the mom was pregnant, the parents would read to the child…I don’t know about that…I just make sure that my child isn’t cold, hungry, or hurt.” 


Child clings on to grandmother as the grandmother is interviewed.
Tyler Weisberg

These challenges to a nurturing home language environment and language skill development for migrant children today, though complex, matter deeply to China’s future. Our time in the field revealed that the rich physical infrastructure of the migrant communities we visited are trivial in comparison to the missing efforts directed toward “soft” inputs like the home language environment.  Our findings highlight the need for interventions focused on raising knowledge and awareness of early childhood development and the importance of interactive parenting.

What we have learned: Reflections from the REAP Intern Team

"I was very proud to be part of a team that managed to sample around 100 households in Chengdu over one month. Despite the heat and the many rejections from caregivers, my in-field experience in Chengdu was very productive, and the struggles ultimately helped me understand the importance of having patience and persistence. I’ve been to rural Yunnan and other places in China, but the differentiated culture of Chengdu has widened my perspective. This has been an amazing experience for a high school student, and I feel so lucky to be part of this process to help the Stanford economics program reach its research initiatives.
" - Tyler 

"The two weeks of fieldwork in Chengdu has given me fresh perspectives on the newly urbanized neighborhoods in my home city, Chengdu. While the long days getting from one household to another and breathing through masks in the heat can be fatiguing, I enjoyed eating hotpot with my colleagues and riding shared bikes with my fellow interns. This fieldwork amplified my curiosity about the reasons for low levels of human development in China’s suburban areas; as I carry on with qualitative fieldwork in the rest of this summer, I hope to dig more deeply into the underlying reasons to the quantitative results our team produced." - Dongming

“At first, reaching our goal of 100 households seemed very difficult. Attempting to find participants, we called countless households and received countless rejections. Many of the families did not trust us, and some of them would even complete the survey then refuse to wear the LENA device. Rejections came in many various forms. Going into the second week, with new partners and everyone’s hard work, we surveyed over 100 households. It was very inspiring to see how hard everyone worked, and I especially enjoyed the opportunity to visit many families and hear their unique stories. Overall, I am very grateful for the process, both the ups and the downs; I have definitely learned a lot.” - Teresa

“From the summer internship in Chengdu, I was able to see the realities of early childhood education in rural areas from a whole new angle. Although I have read some articles on the topic, the field work experience was definitely very enlightening. There’s no other experience that could equate what I learned from doing field work this summer.” - Sandy

read more

Toddlers pose for a picture at a brightly colored parenting center in Sichuan, China.

Hupan Modou Foundation Wins the WISE Award for Parenting-the-Future Project

On October 28, 2020, our close collaborators at the Hupan Modou Foundation were awarded the WISE award in education for the Parenting-the-Future project. Professor Scott Rozelle, REAP's director, shares the good news in a letter to our community.
Children in rural China

China’s Rural Population Will Play an Instrumental Role in its Economic Future

On the World Class Podcast, Scott Rozelle explains why China’s wealth gap may make the transition from a middle- to high-income country more difficult than it seems.