Does your language affect your bank account?

benjamin franklin, money

New research argues that the answer is yes. Depending on what language you speak, you are more – or less – likely to save for retirement. Your primary tongue may even affect how much you weigh.

In January, M. Keith Chen, an associate professor of economics at the School of Management at Yale University, published a working paper on his research about the effect of language on economic behavior. Chen zoomed in on one aspect of language: how we deal with time. Each language organizes and describes the future differently. Linguists call this distinction future-time-reference (FTR, for short). Some languages, like German, have a weak-FTR, which means that the distinction between today and tomorrow isn’t very concrete. In his paper, Chen gives the example that in German, you can say, “It rains tomorrow” whereas in English you have to say, “It will rain tomorrow.” English is a strong-FTR language because there are clear, constant grammatical distinctions between today and tomorrow.

Analyzing retirement savings’ patterns, along with health habits, Chen found that people who speak weak-FTR languages prepare more thoroughly for the future than people who speak strong-FTR languages. In fact, weak-FTR countries save, on average, 6% more of their GDP every year. They also smoke less, exercise more, and are less likely to be overweight.

Chen also analyzed the data accounting for variables like gender, age, and religion, to isolate language as the primary factor. Even in these analyses, people who spoke weak-FTR languages outperformed their strong-FTR peers.

This particular phenomenon is an example of linguistic relativity, or how languages affect how we think. We’ve discussed before how language affects how you see colors and perceive the world around you.

Further research along these lines hasn’t produced conclusive results, and linguists certainly have qualms with these socio-cultural extrapolations. From your experience, do particular languages seem to influence behavior, for better or worse? What are some examples? Share your thoughts with us!