A Yale economist has found that people whose languages draw strong differences between the present and the future — like the Greeks — tend to save less.
Kevin Chen examined two groups of languages in a new working paper: languages that use words like “shall” or “will” to indicate the future, and languages that frequently rely on context rather than grammatically marking future events. Speakers of the first set of languages, like Greek, Italian, and English, tend to see the present and future as more disconnected. By contrast, languages that don’t grammatically distinguish between present and future events, like German, Finish and Mandarin, “lead their speakers to take more future-oriented actions.”
Chen points to a long body of research showing that grammar can affect cognition and ultimately behavior, and discovers that speakers of German and other weak future-time reference languages are inclined to behave as though the future is an extension of the present: They’re 30 percent more likely to save in any given year, have more retirement savings, and are better at taking care of their long-term health. “They are 24 percent less likely to have smoked heavily, are 29 percent more likely to be physically active, and are 13 percent less likely to be medically obese,” he writes. “This is true in every major region of the world and holds even when comparing only demographically similar individuals born and living in the same country.”
Ultimately, Chen believes that linguistic differences could be responsible for the north-south divide in the European savings rate—an issue that’s at the heart of the euro zone crisis. Northern European countries generally tend to speak weak-FTR languages and save more. Cognitive scientist Julie Sedivy has a more skeptical take on Chen’s findings.