Speaking and saving

How you speak can influence how you save.

Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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Want to end the various global debt crises? Try abandoning English, Greek, and Italian in favor of German, Finnish, and Korean. “People whose languages force them to speak differently about the future than the present tend to save less,” says behavioral economist Keith Chen, an associate professor at the School of Management. “Patterns of speech can influence patterns of thought—and action.”

In a working paper, Chen looked at two major groups of world languages. Users of English and the like—whom linguists call strong-FTR (future-time reference) speakers—use words like shall or will to indicate the future; German and other weak-FTR speakers are under no such linguistic obligation and instead often rely on context.

Chen wondered whether strong-FTR speakers, primed to see present and future as disconnected, might tend to overlook later rewards in favor of the here and now. He used two international datasets to look for correlation between FTR and economics. “I found it in spades,” he says.

Weak-FTR speakers were 30 percent more likely to have saved in any given year. By retirement, an individual in that group had accumulated an average of 170,000 Euros (about $225,000 US) more than an otherwise comparable strong-FTR speaker. The finding encompassed entire countries: those whose dominant language had a weak FTR saved, on average, 6 percent more of their GDP per year than their strong-FTR counterparts.

“There’s now a lot of good evidence that people who talk differently think differently, in corresponding ways,” comments Daniel Casasanto, an assistant professor at the New School for Social Research, in an e-mail. “And in some cases, there’s evidence that language doesn’t just reflect underlying cross-cultural differences; using language changes the way people think, creating cross-cultural differences.” 

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