Narrative abilities in ‘left-behind’ ethnic minority children in China: Evidence from Kam-Mandarin bilingual children (NALEC)

Universals and variations in language acquisition are prominent theoretical themes that have figured repeatedly in the scientific literature. To adequately address these theoretical themes, the field of language acquisition is in need of widening its evidential base by studying a diverse range of typologically similar and dissimilar language samples and social-communicative backgrounds. Specifically in studies examining children’s development of narrative abilities,  there is evidence in the  literature suggesting  some developmental patterns that appear to be generally similar in children from different language backgrounds. However, the existing data mostly focus on Indo-European languages and the so-called WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) societies . Research on children from other typologically different languages and sociocultural contexts is limited.

This project is the first to document bilingual acquisition of a new language pair: Kam-Mandarin language, and a non-WEIRD context: a group of so-called ‘left-behind’ children from low-SES families in China who grow up in a unique social-communicative environment. Mandarin, one of the major languages in the world, has the largest population of speakers. Kam, a minority language in China, spoken by the Kam ethnic minority people mainly residing in south and southwest China, belongs to the Tai–Kadai language family. There are approximately 3 million Kam ethnic minority people mainly residing in south and southwest China (National Bureau of Statistics, People’s Republic of China, 2019, see picture 1 below).

‘left-behind’ children refer to those who remain in the rural areas, as their parent(s) left them behind and went to cities for employment. They are primarily taken care of by one or both of their grandparents, their relatives or family friends.  Their parents usually visit home twice or only once a year.  Most ‘left-behind’ children live in remote rural areas where have limited access to resources and facilities for learning such as books, libraries, etc. The prolonged absence of parental care, the loss of solid family structure, poor living conditions and a lack of learning resources make these children more vulnerable to developmental, behavioural and psychological problems. 

This project addresses the following questions:

  1. Do the ‘left-behind’ Kam- Mandarin bilingual children who are culturally and linguistically distinct from their WEIRD counterparts follow the common developmental trajectories of narrative skills reported in the literature?
  2.  How does this unique social-communicative environment affect the development of children’s narrative competence?
  3.  What are the relationships between narrative and lexical and morphosyntactic abilities?

Picture 1: Kam Village