Updated: Sep 17, 2019
Economist Keith Chen starts today’s talk with an observation. In order to say, “this is my uncle” in Chinese, you have no choice but to encode more information about your uncle. The language requires that you denote which side of your family the uncle is on, whether he’s related by marriage or birth and, if it’s your father’s brother, whether he’s older or younger.
“All of this information is obligatory. Chinese doesn’t let me ignore it,” says Chen. “In fact, if I want to speak correctly, Chinese forces me to constantly think about it."
This got Chen wondering: is there a connection between language and how we think and behave? In particular, Chen wanted to know how our language affects our economic decisions.
Chen designed a study — which he describes in detail in this blog post — to look at how language might affect an individual’s ability to save money for the future. According to his results, it does. Big time.
While “futured languages” like English distinguish between the past, present and future, “futureless languages” like Chinese use the same phrasing to describe the events of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Using vast inventories of data and meticulous analysis, Chen found that huge economic differences are correlated with this linguistic discrepancy. Futureless language speakers are 30% more likely to report saving money in any given year compared to futured language speakers. (This amounts to 25% more savings by retirement for the futureless speakers, if income is held constant.) Chen’s explanation is that when we speak about the future as distinct from the present, it feels more distant. If we feel the future is distant, we’re less motivated to save money now in favor of financial comfort years down the line.
But that’s only the beginning. There’s a wide field of research on the link between language and both psychology and behavior. Here are a four fascinating examples:
Navigation and Pormpuraawans. In Pormpuraaw, an Australian aboriginal community, you wouldn’t refer to an object as on your “left” or “right.” Instead, you would say it is “northeast” or “southwest,” writes Stanford psychology professor Lera Boroditsky, an expert in linguistic-cultural connections, in the Wall Street Journal. About a third of the world’s languages discuss space in absolute terms rather than the relative ones we use in English, according to Boroditsky. “As a result of this constant linguistic training,” she writes, “speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes.” On a research trip to Australia, Boroditsky and her colleague found that Pormpuraawans, who speak Kuuk Thaayorre, not only knew instinctively in which direction they were facing, but also always arranged pictures in a temporal progression from East to West.
Blame and English Speakers. In the same article, Boroditsky notes that in English, we’ll often say that someone broke a vase even if it was an accident. In Spanish and Japanese, speakers tend to say that the vase broke itself. Boroditsky describes a study by her student Caitlin Fausey in which English speakers were more likely to remember who accidentally popped balloons, broken eggs, or spilled drinks in a video than Spanish or Japanese speakers. (Guilt alert!) Not only that, but there’s a correlation between a focus on agents in English and our criminal-justice system that tends to punish transgressors rather than restituate victims, Boroditsky argues.
Color among Zuñi and Russian Speakers. Our ability to distinguish between colors follows the terms in which we describe them, as Chen notes in the academic paper in which he presents his research (forthcoming in the American Economic Review; PDF here). A 1954 study found that Zuñi speakers who don’t differentiate between orange and yellow, have trouble telling them apart. Russian speakers, on the other hand, have separate words for light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy). According to a 2007 study, they are better than English speakers at picking out blues close to the goluboy/siniy threshold.
Gender in Finnish and Hebrew. In Hebrew, gender markers are all over the place, whereas Finnish doesn’t mark gender at all, Boroditsky writes in Scientific American (PDF here). A study done in the 1980s found that thought follows suit. Kids who spoke Hebrew knew their own genders a year earlier than those who grew up speaking Finnish. (Speakers of English, in which gender referents fall in the middle, were in-between on that timeline, too.)