New research suggests language structure may play factor in personal saving

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A new study from a Yale University economist concludes that people save more or less according to the language they speak.

Behavioral Economist Keith Chen is interested in how people make financial decisions. Last year, he started wondering if people whose native languages make fewer distinctions between the future and present might think differently about the future.

In Chinese, for example, there is no future tense. There are many ways for conveying the future, but you don’t do it through tense. In the movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon for example, a young female fighter beats up several men, and then warns them she’ll be back the next day.

“Tomorrow,” she says, “ I will uproot Wudan Mountain”

Except that in Chinese she doesn’t say “will” What she says literally translates to “Tomorrow, I uproot Wudan Mountain.” The word tomorrow indicates the future. The Chinese language doesn’t require more than that.

So, is there any significance to that?

Chen says yes, but it’s subtle. In some languages, he says people are “slightly nudged every time (they) speak, to think about the future as something viscerally different from the present.” In Chinese, he says, that doesn’t take place. The present and future are the same.

Chen has concluded that having a separate verb tense for your future self might make your future self a little harder to relate to.

He knows it’s “kind of a crazy hypothesis, it’s a little bit out there.”

The flip side of this idea is that speakers who use the same verbs for the present and future might be a little better at thinking about the future– and maybe even better at saving for the future.

This is pretty controversial territory.

Some multilingual speakers believe they think differently from one language to the next.

But most linguists don’t buy this idea that the language we speak determines how we think.

Chen, however, persisted in his research.

He divided up world languages by whether they distinguish much between present and future tense.

He then compared speakers of those languages based on savings statistics.

He found “huge differences.”

For example, he found that people who speak languages requiring a separate future tense — English, Arabic, Greek, the Romance languages — are far worse at saving money than people whose languages don’t really distinguish between the future and the present, like the Chinese, Germans, Japanese, or Norwegians.

After adjusting for variation in people’s education levels, their incomes and  religious preferences, Chen found that those whose primary languages uses a different tense for present, compared to future, were 30 percent less likely to have saved money in any given year.

By the time those same people reach retirement, they will have saved, on average, more than $200,000 less than speakers of languages with no future tense.

Some linguists remain skeptical.

John McWhorter, author of What Language Is (And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be), doubts whether verb tense and savings habits have much, if anything, in common.

McWhorter says studies like this one are prone to mistakes, because they survey too many languages without knowing enough about how these languages truly function.

For example, he says Chen placed Russian in the wrong category.

Still, McWhorter says he’d love to be proven wrong.

“If somebody really could prove it … I would even be open to finding that my skepticism about the language-is … unfounded.”

Chen insists he did go into his research with a healthy amount of skepticism.

But he says all the data points to his conclusion.

“I haven’t been able to find a counter-example in the world yet.”


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