Language Lens

A blog about life, discovery and culture through the lens of language and linguistics.

How your language impacts your money saving habits

Of course someone who grew up speaking a different language would think differently and make different decisions than you, wouldn’t they?  I’m convinced it’s true, although whether or not it’s solely because of language is questionable.  This question has been and continues to be debated by (real, as in professional) linguists, and every now and again examples pop up to prove that it’s true.  Watch this video for  a recent example.

In the video you either chose to watch or chose to watch later (as it’s really interesting), Behavioral Economist Keith Chen suggests that the language you speak impacts the way you think about the future, and specifically about your money-saving habits.  How is it that countries with similar economies can still have radically different savings patterns? And could language–something different between countries–possibly make a difference?

Map of money

English is what Kevin called a “futured language,” meaning that it has a future tense and speaks about the future in a different way than the past and present.  It separates the future in other words and makes it a separate entity.  English in fact is the only Germanic language that speaks about the future this way.  Believe it or not, other languages such as German and Chinese don’t differentiate time like English does.   German often uses the present tense in place of the future tense, and Chinese allows someone to say (in translation):

  • Yesterday it rained.
  • Now it rained.
  • Tomorrow it rained.

These are called “futureless languages.”  The theory was that if a language speaks as if the present and the future are so different and so far away from each other time-wise, then it would make it harder to save money; whereas if the present and the future are viewed in nearly the same way, then it makes saving more likely.

After analysis and a lot of cross-tabs, the data showed that this theory was in fact true!  The best savers are more closely related to futureless languages.  Statistical analysis showed in Kevin’s research that “futureless language speakers are 30% more likely to save in a year,” and “retirees from futureless languages are going to have 25% more” money saved for retirement,  if income is held constant.

What a contradiction this is!  Countries with future languages such as the United States that are almost-obsessed with the concept of saving money for the future are actually saving less than countries that don’t even think about the future in their words (and maybe therefore in their thoughts.)

This was on an individual level, so what about on a country basis?  Comparing China, Estonia and Germany to India, Greece and the UK, one major difference is savings rates.  Germans save 10 percentage points more than the British (as a fraction of GDP), and Estonians and Chinese are saving 20 percentage points more than Greeks and Indians!  And as we know, who’s doing better than most countries today in the difficult economic climate?  The strongest economy in Europe is Germany, and worldwide we know that China is doing pretty well.

And that ladies and gentleman is what I call pure discovery!

For more examples on how language impacts our behavior, go to the article that corresponds to the video.

More from Kevin’s blog.


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7 thoughts on “How your language impacts your money saving habits

  1. jaristophanes on said:

    Amazing! Does Spanish qualify as a futured language?

    • Amazing I know! Yes Spanish is a future language but there is something really interesting about Argentina that I was saving for another post. Stay-tuned!

      • It’s been five years. Where’s the information on Argentina?

      • Thx for asking. Argentina isn’t a country that saves money. For inflation reasons, they spend it as soon as they get it or invest in a different currency. And they only use the present tense to refer to future. It’s rare that someone uses the future tense in Spanish there, which is fitting to society, as it’s all in the moment and fir “today.” There you go!

  2. keinekatze on said:

    “English in fact is the only Germanic language that speaks about the future this way.”

    I can’t speak for other Germanic languages, but German speakers certainly can speak about the future as English speakers do. While German frequently uses the present tense to talk about the future, it can also express futurity with the verb “werden”, which functions much like “will” or “be going to” in English. Furthermore, English can use the present tense to express futurity much like German does, as in “I leave tomorrow”. Yet German is counted as futureless while English is said to be futured.

    Unfortunately classifying languages as “futureless” and “futured” is not all that clear cut. This article outlines the issues rather well in case you are interested to find out more:

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