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YOLO: Can Language Affect Your Ability To Plan For The Future?

There's reason to believe that the language you grew up speaking has something to do with the size of your savings account.

Good news, millennials, there’s something besides avocado toast you can blame for your lack of a mortgage. No, really. But the reason has nothing to do with economics, it has to do with the language you grew up speaking.

A paper published in American Economic Review in 2013 put forth a very compelling and controversial claim: Depending on how your language treats the future tense, you might have an easier or harder time planning for the future.

According to behavioral economist Keith Chen, the study’s author, a strong future tense (like the one possessed by the English language) seems to be linked with saving less money and not sticking with yearly fitness resolutions. If this seems counterintuitive, consider this: when there’s nothing inherent in your language to distinguish between "today" and "tomorrow," the present and the future become equally important in your mind.

So what does a strong future tense look like, anyway?

If you were talking about the weather in English or French, you would say something like "It is cold today" or "It will be cold tomorrow."

In Mandarin or Finnish, you would essentially say "Today is cold" or "Tomorrow is cold." This weak future tense uses the same verb tense in both scenarios, and it might aid the speaker in preparing for tomorrow’s weather.

Chen mapped the languages spoken across Europe and compared them with data on pragmatic behavior like saving money, exercising and using condoms. He found strong evidence to suggest that those who speak languages with weak future tenses were considerably more responsible. And yes, he did consider that some of these differences might be cultural and socioeconomic. But when comparing individuals within the same countries who grew up speaking different languages — and controlling for things like income level, education and family structure — he found that speakers of languages like German and Finnish were 31 percent more likely to save money, 24 percent less likely to smoke, 29 percent more likely to exercise often and 13 percent less likely to be medically obese. Oh, and they tend to save 39 percent more money by the time they hit retirement.

All in all, Chen studied data from 76 countries across five continents, and this distinction held true across and within various countries, and with other demographic factors taken into account. Not only is it evident on an individual level, but also countries that speak weak-future-tense languages save an average of 6 percent more of their GDP every year.

Naturally, these claims raised plenty of eyebrows when they were first published. Linguistics professor Geoff Pullum pointed out that the language of the Pirahã Indians of Brazil has no future tense marking whatsoever, which would make them very prudent planners in theory. Instead, the Pirahã rarely store food, neglect to preserve their meat and only make a few days’ worth of manioc flour at a time.

One blogger challenged Chen’s hypothesis by running a series of linear regressions that "proved" that other linguistic variables can be equally good at predicting economic decisions, but after Chen reached out to the blogger and pointed out that his analysis used conditional logit modeling (and not linear regressions), he published a new post conceding that Chen’s case was a lot more robust than he initially thought, and that future tense was a better predictor of saving habits than 99 percent of linguistic variables.

Chen also pointed out in his paper that language might not necessarily be causing these trends so much as "reflecting deeper differences that drive savings behavior," but there’s still reason to believe there could be a casual relationship at play. Even though language and cultural values both appear to have an impact on savings behavior, these two factors don’t correlate the way you’d think they would if they both originated from the same place.

If you generally buy the notion that language shapes our perception of the world around us, then none of this is very far-fetched at all. But what’s a person to do with this information if they didn’t happen to grow up speaking a weak-future-tense language? Are English-speaking natives doomed to continue frittering away their retirement money on Seamless?

Maybe — but maybe not. As with anything in life, it’s all in what you do with that information. Maybe speaking to your financial adviser in another language is one place to start.

Besides: bilingualism can pay off (literally) in other ways. Knowing another language can expose you to more career opportunities, help you make smarter financial decisions and substantially boost your income overall.

Do something good for your brain (and your bottom line).

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