What is the meaning of a language? Does our first language have an influence on who we are and how we act?
As it turns out, it does. Every language has its own set of norms and structures that allow speakers to communicate information in a way that is understandable and reasonable to other speakers. All of those rules, declinations, and verbs cause language learners problems, but they also have an impact on how we create thoughts in our minds, organise information, and organise our views of the world.
Is it any surprise, therefore, that language begins to influence how we experience reality?
Behavioural Economics’ contribution
The field of economics, as we know, is no more than the study of behaviour regarding the set of possible allocations of resources, like savings and consumption, for example. This behaviour is the same as the ones who impact language.
Keith Chen, a behavioural economist, was interested in studies tying language to human perception in 2011 and exploited those findings in his own study. Having in mind that behaviours are the same, he subsequently became intrigued by the variances in people's saving habits in other countries. This phenomena is undoubtedly influenced by a variety of variables, including cultural influences, government initiatives, incentives in place, and so on.
Professor Chen discovered that language, namely the way language frames the vision of the future, has a role.
In a language, there are primarily two ways to generate future tenses. To keep it short, it can either keep the same verb as in the present/past tense and add something to indicate that we are referring to a future moment. While "futured languages" such as English distinguish between the past, present, and future, "futureless languages" like German utilise the same wording to express events from the past, present, and future.
Chen discovered that this language mismatch is accompanied by substantial economic discrepancies using massive data collections and thorough analysis. Futureless language speakers are 30% more likely than futured language speakers to report saving in any given year. (If income remains constant, this equates to a 25% increase in savings at retirement.) The need to change the word standing for the verb we're using in "futured" languages, rather than simply using the same word in different contexts, implies that speakers of those languages must pay extra attention to the difference between present and future, nudging them to think of these two moments as being further apart in the order of things. Speakers of “futureless” languages, on the other hand, tend to see the present and future as similar and closer together. When judging future outcomes, human behaviour regularly indicates the presence of a discounting component (present bias), resulting in a preference for immediate rewards, even if little, over larger ones at a later time. Chen's view is that when we talk about the future in terms other than the present, it appears more distant — thus we're less inclined to save money now in favour of financial security in the future.
Figure 1: The savings rate distribution in OECD nations, differentiating between those who speak a "futured" and those who speak a "futureless" language.
Professor Chen's findings reveal that when comparing identical families in the same countries with the sole difference being the usage of a "futureless" rather than a "futured" language, the former are more likely to save than the latter.
But now with a more globalised world, where people tend to speak more than their native language, a question was raised: “Does a no-native language influence our behaviour as well?
The answer is yes, but not in the same way as before. Thinking in a non-native language requires more attention from us to what we say and what is being said to us. Studies have shown positive effects on the brains of polyglots (people who speak more than one language), known as the Foreign Language Effect.
Going further, the Foreign Language Effect can be used as a nudge. Individuals who are being exposed to questions in their non-native language can reduce their exposure to the negatives effects from biases and heuristics. This helps them make better self-decisions, and further, for the society.
Beatriz Martins & Fanny Springer
Gross, J., 2021. How language can affect the way we think. [online] ideas.ted.com. Available at: <https://ideas.ted.com/5-examples-of-how-the-languages-we-speak-can-affect-the-way-we-think/> [Accessed 7 November 2021].
TED, 2021. Keith Chen: language that forecasts weather — and behavior | TED Blog. [online] Blog.ted.com. Available at: <https://blog.ted.com/saving-for-a-rainy-day-keith-chen-on-language-that-forecasts-weather-and-behavior/> [Accessed 7 November 2021].
Chen, M., 2013. The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets. American Economic Review, 103(2), pp.690-731.