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Title: Tongue-Tied: An Empirical Analysis of Bilingualism and Income in Singapore
Authors: Chen, Emily
Advisors: Tienda, Marta
Department: Woodrow Wilson School
Certificate Program: East Asian Studies Program
Class Year: 2018
Abstract: Singapore’s official bilingual policy requires all Singaporeans to speak English and a “mother tongue” language of Mandarin Chinese, Malay, or Tamil, depending on the students’ paternal ancestry. Motivated by economic and cultural concerns, the policy intends to create a population that speaks English professionally but uses their respective mother tongue languages for personal communication at home. In recent years, as English has expanded beyond the workplace to become the language spoken most often at home in Singapore, the government has also begun to promote the economic value of mother tongue languages as well, emphasizing that proficiency in Mandarin Chinese, Malay, and Tamil can also confer professional advantages in the context of a rapidly-growing Asia-Pacific region. However, although existing research has explored the benefits of English-mother tongue bilingualism from a qualitative perspective, few studies – if any – provide empirical evidence of bilingualism’s economic advantages in Singapore. Although the lack of insight into this relationship is at least partly due to the limited accessibility of language data, there is little consensus regarding the economic value of bilingualism among studies in countries such as Canada and the US as well. This thesis attempts to address the scarcity of information about the influences of bilingualism on earnings in Singapore. In short, it answers two questions: first, how does bilingual proficiency relate to earnings, and second, how does this relationship differ when the impacts of bilingualism are disaggregated into specific language combinations? Using a combination of customized aggregate data from the Department of Statistics and individual-level survey data from the World Values Survey and the Asian Barometer Survey, this thesis uses regression analysis to demonstrate the relationship between bilingualism and income from 2002 to 2014. The analysis finds that bilingualism does not appear to confer additional economic benefits once the influences of English proficiency is considered. Higher earnings are strongly correlated with English language skills; any earnings advantage experienced by bilinguals is likely related specifically to their English proficiency rather than their bilingualism. By 2014, language skills on the whole – whether bilingual or English – do not seem to impact income. Importantly, the analysis also highlights the significant influences of ethnicity on income; Malays seem to consistently earn lower incomes across all three surveys. These interpretations suggest that policymakers must also consider how language policy influences broader forms of inequality over time. After reviewing existing literature about language policy’s impact on socioeconomic inequality, this thesis concludes that, to reverse declining rates of mother tongue language use and implement a bilingual policy that promotes equal opportunities for economic advancement, policymakers must first work beyond educational initiatives to acknowledge the relationship between socioeconomic class and bilingualism.
Type of Material: Princeton University Senior Theses
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, 1929-2023
East Asian Studies Program, 2017-2022

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