Does the language we speak determine how healthy and rich we will be? New research by Keith Chen of Yale Business School suggests so. The structure of languages affects our judgments and decisions about the future and this might have dramatic long-term consequences.
There has been a lot of research into how we deal with the future. For example, the famous marshmallow studies of Walter Mischel and colleagues showed that being able to resist temptation is predictive of future success. Four-year-old kids were given a marshmallow and were told that if they do not eat that marshmallow and wait for the experimenter to come back, they will get two marshmallows instead of one. Follow-up studies showed that the kids who were able to wait for the bigger future reward became more successful young adults.
Resisting our impulses for immediate pleasure is often the only way to attain the outcomes that are important to us. We want to keep a slim figure but we also want that last slice of pizza. We want a comfortable retirement, but we also want to drive that dazzling car, go on that dream vacation, or get those gorgeous shoes. Some people are better at delaying gratification than others. Those people have a better chance of accumulating wealth and keeping a healthy life style. They are less likely to be impulse buyers or smokers, or to engage in unsafe sex.
Chen’s recent findings suggest that an unlikely factor, language, strongly affects our future-oriented behavior. Some languages strongly distinguish the present and the future. Other languages only weakly distinguish the present and the future. Chen’s recent research suggests that people who speak languages that weakly distinguish the present and the future are better prepared for the future. They accumulate more wealth and they are better able to maintain their health. The way these people conceptualize the future is similar to the way they conceptualize the present. As a result, the future does not feel very distant and it is easier for them to act in accordance with their future interests.
Different languages have different ways of talking about the future. Some languages, such as English, Korean, and Russian, require their speakers to refer to the future explicitly. Every time English-speakers talk about the future, they have to use future markers such as “will” or “going to.” In other languages, such as Mandarin, Japanese, and German, future markers are not obligatory. The future is often talked about similar to the way present is talked about and the meaning is understood from the context. A Mandarin speaker who is going to go to a seminar might say “Wo qu ting jiangzuo,” which translates to “I go listen seminar.” Languages such as English constantly remind their speakers that future events are distant. For speakers of languages such as Mandarin future feels closer. As a consequence, resisting immediate impulses and investing for the future is easier for Mandarin speakers.
Chen analyzed individual-level data from 76 developed and developing countries. This data includes people’s economic decisions, such as whether they saved any money last year, the languages they speak at home, demographics, and cultural factors such as “saving is an important cultural value for me.” He also analyzed individual-level data on people’s retirement assets, smoking and exercising habits, and general health in older age. Lastly, he analyzed national-level data that includes national savings rates, country GDP and GDP growth rates, country demographics, and proportions of people speaking different languages.
People’s savings rates are affected by various factors such as their income, education level, age, religious affiliation, their countries’ legal systems, and their cultural values. After those factors were accounted for, the effect of language on people’s savings rates turned out to be big. Speaking a language that has obligatory future markers, such as English, makes people 30 percent less likely to save money for the future. This effect is as large as the effect of unemployment. Being unemployed decreases the likelihood of saving by about 30 percent as well.