Could the English language be hurting your ability to save for retirement?
According to Keith Chen, former Yale University behavioral economist and current UCLA economist professor, it’s very possible that its hurting your retirement savings.
English is considered a “future” language, meaning that in order to speak correctly, you have to use a different tense when speaking about the present than when speaking about the future. That separates what is happening now from what will or may happen in the future.
On the contrary, there are “futureless” languages, where speakers use the same tense to talk about the present and the future, leaving little separation between what is happening now and what will happen in the future.
Here’s an example. In English, we say the following three things to express weather over time:
It rained yesterday. It is raining now. It will rain tomorrow.
Not all languages have these differences. In German, there is no distinction grammatically between today and tomorrow.
Gestern regnete es. Jetzt regnet es. Morgen regnet es.
Translated to English, that means this: Yesterday it rained. Now it rains. Tomorrow it rains.
As a future language speaker, you’re forced to cleave the future from the present and treat it as if it’s different, Chen says.
Chen believes that speakers of futureless languages see a stronger, more seamless connection between their present self and their future self. So when saving money, they feel that they’re saving for themselves, not some disassociated future self that doesn’t exist yet.
His research bears this out. Of the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a group chosen by Chen because of the similar economic structures of these counties, the countries with futureless languages tend to save more over time.
The people of Luxembourg, speaking German and French, save more than 40 percent of their GDP, while Americans are saving just 15 percent.
Digging down deeper, he found countries that speak both a future and futureless language and compared similar populations in each country to eliminate stray cultural factors that could sway the data. He found that those speaking futureless languages saved 30 percent more in any given year. Holding their income constant, they will retire with 25 percent more in savings–that’s nothing to dismiss.
And savings isn’t the only thing affected by language. Futureless speakers are also 20 to 24 percent less likely to smoke and 13 to 17 percent less likely to be obese.
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