Language and Thought

The following article excerpt from describes how our language affects our thinking on a practical level; not just abstractly.

“Does your language affect your bank account?”

New research argues that the answer is yes. Depending on what language you speak, you are more – or less – likely to save for retirement. Your primary tongue may even affect how much you weigh.

In January, M. Keith Chen, an associate professor of economics at the School of Management at Yale University, published a working paper on his research about the effect of language on economic behavior. Chen zoomed in on one aspect of language: how we deal with time. Each language organizes and describes the future differently. Linguists call this distinction future-time-reference (FTR, for short). Some languages, like German, have a weak-FTR, which means that the distinction between today and tomorrow isn’t very concrete. In his paper, Chen gives the example that in German, you can say, “It rains tomorrow” whereas in English you have to say, “It will rain tomorrow.” English is a strong-FTR language because there are clear, constant grammatical distinctions between today and tomorrow.

Analyzing retirement savings’ patterns, along with health habits, Chen found that people who speak weak-FTR languages prepare more thoroughly for the future than people who speak strong-FTR languages. In fact, weak-FTR countries save, on average, 6% more of their GDP every year. They also smoke less, exercise more, and are less likely to be overweight.

Chen also analyzed the data accounting for variables like gender, age, and religion, to isolate language as the primary factor. Even in these analyses, people who spoke weak-FTR languages outperformed their strong-FTR peers.

This particular phenomenon is an example of linguistic relativity, or how languages affect how we think. We’ve discussed before how language affects how you see colors and perceive the world around you.

Read at:|utmccn=(direct)|utmcmd=(none)&__utmv=-&__utmk=224933786


How we perceive the world is directly related to how we think. I do not mean this in a grand way, such as “I was raised conservative, therefore I think conservatively.” Rather, the “how” of perception is based upon the diction and grammatical structure of our native language (or, arguably, any language we speak fluently). Think about it. If the word “I” did not exist in the English language, then Americans would be a collectivist rather than an individualist culture. We would be forced to use “we” when referring to ourselves. Consider the affect this diction would have on our thinking. Our identity would no longer be based upon a set of individual traits, but upon being a member of the community. Suddenly the self is only important insofar as connects with and contributes to the group.

I am not important, but we are.

As far as grammar is concerned, consider the article cited above. Verb tense greatly impacts perception. As written, German has a “weak FTR,” meaning that its future tense is not as strong as English. What effect does this produce? The future is no longer somewhere down the road, or something to be dealt with later. Instead, it is present – as real as the present moment. Maybe this is why Germans save better, and are healthier, etc. – because there is little separation between the “now” and the “will be.”

Fascinating stuff.


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