Keith Chen, a behavioural economist at Yale University, is convinced that there is a connection between economics, how you feel about the future and how your language forces you to talk about the future.
It is a proven fact that many languages express concepts differently. The Russian linguist Roman Jakobson once said that ‘languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey’. Let’s take Chinese, for instance.
The English concept uncle would not be an unacceptable way of talking about your relative in Chinese, because it conveys too little information. Mandarin Chinese speakers are forced to give a lot more information: first of all, there is no general word for uncle in Chinese. Instead their speakers need to say if it is an uncle from their mother’s or father’s side, if it is an uncle by birth or marriage, and if the uncle is the younger or older sibling from their mother or father.
Similarly, languages are fundamentally different in ways they force their speakers to talk about the future. According to the Swedish linguist Östen Dahl, there are two categories of Future-Time-Reference (FTR): languages with a weak FTR, including Chinese, German and Finnish, allow their speakers to talk about the future like the present. They are also called futureless languages. In contrast, strong FTR languages, or futured languages, such as English, Greek and Italian, force their speakers to grammatically realise that the future is something very different to the present. For example:
In English (strong FTR), you can say:
a) It rained yesterday.
b) It is raining now.
c) It will rain tomorrow.
In German (weak FTR), you can say:
a) Es regnete gestern. (‘It rained yesterday.’)
b) Es regnet gerade. (‘It rains now.’)
c) Es regnet morgen. (‘It rains tomorrow.’)
In Chinese (weak FTR), you can express all three temporal concepts with ‘it rain’
a) Yesterday it rain.
b) Now it rain.
c) Tomorrow it rain.
Professor Chen explains to the BBC Business Daily that ‘if your language separates the future and the present in its grammar that seems to lead you to slightly disassociate the future from the present every time you speak’.
He reveals in his research paper that speakers of languages with no real future are:
- likely to have saved 39% more by the time they retire
- 31% more likely to save in a year
- 29% more likely to be physically active
- 13% less likely to be obese
- 24% less likely to smoke
His findings are based on nine multilingual countries, including Belgium, Switzerland, Estonia, Nigeria and Singapore.
However, Chen’s claims have found several critics, both linguists and economists. The linguist John McWhorter from the Columbia University states that any influence a language’s structure has on the way its speakers see their world is very subtle. ‘The extent to which the language shapes the thought is tiny. We’re talking about milliseconds of reaction’.
The director of Durham University’s Centre for Behavioural Economics, Morten Lay, agrees that the factors which affect how much people save have little to do with language. ‘You have to be careful the inferences you make from correlations like these. It is very difficult to control for multiple factors. For instance, in our own research in Denmark, we found that male smokers wanted a higher interest rate on their savings that did non-smokers. But this did not apply to women smokers.’
To find out more to which extent language can have an effect on its speaker, read our ‘Does Language Affect our World View?’ article.
Watch Professor Chen’s video on TED and let us know what you think: