Not Saving Enough? Your Native Language May Be to Blame

English Translator
English Translator

If you're reading this without the help of Google Translate, chances are your saving habits stink, and you're not as healthy as you could be either.

According to recent research by Yale University behavioral economist Keith Chen, the language you speak plays an important role in how you approach saving money. This might seem absurd, but his research has shown a strong correlation between language and future decision-making.

"Languages force you to pay attention to time," Chen explains. Languages such as English, French, Italian and Tamil are what he calls "strong future-time reference languages" -- languages that have a different tense for the future. "Weak future-time reference languages," such as Mandarin and German, don't make as much of a distinction between the present and the future; in German, for example, "Morgen regent es" translates as "it rains tomorrow."

The greater the linguistic distinction between present and future, Chen says, the less likely you are to plan ahead. That may be why speakers of future-less languages are likely to have 39 percent more wealth than their future-speaking counterparts by the time they retire. They are also 31 percent more likely to have saved more.

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The study also found that future-language speakers tend to be unhealthier: They get less exercise, practice unsafe sex, and smoke more than their future-less language counterparts. According to Chen, they choose "current pleasure in exchange for future pain." He realizes that the whole premise sounds far-fetched, but his research has yielded statistical evidence showing that future-less language speakers are 24 percent less likely to smoke, 29 percent more likely to exercise, and 13 percent less likely to be obese.

Critics of Chen's work suggest that the differences observed are not related to language but rather to culture. But he responds that he controlled for that factor by testing in multilingual countries. In those nations, he notes, you can find families living next to each other with the exact same education and socioeconomic factors, but different languages, and different levels of saving. Sure enough, the families conversing in the future-less language were on average saving more.

Chen says that what his study essentially shows is "how we represent these problems to ourselves." So instead of purchasing a copy of Rosetta Stone, you might want to consider changing your perception of time.

Photo Credit: Alamy