Your Language May Affect Your Savings Account
Keith Chen, an associate professor of economics at the Yale School of Management, spoke at TED Global in June 2012. There, he proposed a theory that ties into the long-established belief that how you speak can affect how you think: being an economist, Chen applied the theory to his own field.
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Tuesday, Feb. 19, TED put the video online.
Chen splits languages into two categories, "futured" and "futureless," depending on how they use and conjugate verbs. "Futured" languages necessitate conjugations and auxiliary verbs when speaking in future tense, while it's optional for "futureless" languages. In English, for instance, we say "It will rain," "It is raining," and "It rained," forcing us to assign a specific time to an event or action. Both the verb-tense and the auxiliary ("will") are necessary in order to be grammatically correct.
In futureless languages, future tenses and auxiliaries may exist, but are almost completely optional, and rarely used in speech. In Mandarin Chinese, one could literally say, "Yesterday/Today/Tomorrow rain," and still be grammatically correct. Japanese and German are also considered futureless languages.
Several skeptics take issue with Chen's categorization. He sorts Swedish as a futureless language, although it is possible, for instance, to say "It rained," "It rains," and "It will rain" ("Det regnade," "Det regnar," "Det kommer regna" ). Other native speakers stress that rather than the written language, Chen is referring to how people speak. "For example, if a friend asks me if its going to rain tomorrow (it will), then I would answer "a de regnar imorgon (yes it rains tomorrow)" vs. "ja, de kommer at regna imorrgon (yes it's going to rain tomorrow)," a commenter called Tristan C wrote.
How does this affect savings habits?
Chen hypothesizes that in futured languages, native speakers distance themselves from the future, separating it from the perception of their present. In short, it causes them to think about and prepare for their future less than someone for whom the present and future hold the same relevance, because the language does not differentiate.
The dataset involved countries whose populations spoke either a futured language or a futureless language, controlling for age, race, country of birth and residence, religion, sex, income level, educational achievement and family structure.
"It's getting as close as possible to the thought experiment of finding two families," Chen said in his lecture, "both of whom live in Brussels who are identical on every single one of these dimensions, but one of whom speaks Flemish and one of whom speaks French, or two families that live in a rural district in Nigeria, one of whom speaks Hausa and one of whom speaks Igbo."
The results appeared conclusive, Chen said. Futureless language speakers are 30 percent more likely to save in a given year, and given a steady income would retire with 25 percent more in savings. It also affects smoking behavior (futureless speakers are 20 to 24 percent less likely to smoke), weight management (13 to 17 percent less likely to be obese by retirement) and even sexual activity (21 percent more likely to have used a condom during their last encounter).
This doesn't mean that futureless language speakers will definitely retire with more earnings (numerous factors contribute to a person's decision on whether to spend or save money), but all other things being equal, such as culture, location, education and class, they have a tendency to "save" more, in finance as well as health.
This ties in neatly with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is in essence the belief that language expresses the "spirit" of a nation. Language already affects us in several other ways; it makes the Pormpuraawans of Australia excellent navigators, helps English-speakers remember how to shift blame, helps and hinders Russian and Zuñi speakers' ability to tell colors apart, and affects the age of gender identity in Finnish speakers (gender-neutral, children learn later) and Hebrew speakers (gendered language, children learn sooner).
Chen recently posted a blog entry to TED, wherein he described another experiment using weather forecasts, scouring the Web for predictions in 39 different languages. "I believe more than ever that the data suggests a strong and robust relationship between linguistic and economic data," he wrote, "a relationship that leaves us at an exciting crossroads: one where economists have a tremendous amount to learn from linguists."