The language we speak predicts a range of economic and health behaviors, from how much money we save for retirement to how much we exercise, according to research by Keith Chen, a behavioral economist at the Yale School of Management.
Languages vary in how much of a grammatical distinction they require speakers to make between the present and the future. For example, English requires speakers to talk about the future as different from the present ("It will rain tomorrow"), while German allows speakers to talk about the future as though it is the present (Morgen regnet es, "It rains tomorrow"). In every region of the world, Chen found, languages that make little or no distinction between the present and the future induce speakers to make more future-oriented choices.
Speakers of languages that do not distinguish between the present and the future save more money, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese, according to Chen’s findings.
“There’s a connection between how you feel about the future and how your language forces you to talk about the future,” says Chen. “If you speak a language that doesn’t distinguish strongly between the present and the future, you save a lot more because the future feels closer. If you speak a language that separates present and future events, the future feels more distant, which makes it harder to do things to care for your future self like save money, exercise, and eat better.”
The relationship between language and behavior holds not only across countries, but also within countries that have multiple national languages. Chen compared individuals with identical income, education, family structure, and country of birth, but who speak different languages within the same country. Speakers of languages with weak distinctions between the present and the future were 31% more likely to have saved money in any given year, had accumulated 39% more wealth by retirement, were 24% less likely to smoke, were 29% more likely to be physically active, and were 13% less likely to be medically obese compared to speakers of languages that make a strong distinction between the present and the future.
A country’s language also has a significant effect on the national savings rate. Chen found that OECD countries that speak languages that equate the present and the future save on average 6% more of their GDP per year. Luxembourg had the highest national savings rate, while Greece had the lowest.
Languages with weak references to the future include Chinese, Finnish, German, and Japanese. Languages with strong references to the future include English, Greek, Italian, and Russian.
“The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets” is forthcoming in the American Economic Review.