Professor Chen analysed people in nine countries with identical incomes, education, family structure and countries of birth, but whose first language differed.
His theory centres around what linguists call future-time reference (FTR) in language. Languages such as English have a strong FTR, in that we specify between the present and future when we speak. He cites the example “I (will go, am going, have to go) to a seminar” in English, whereas someone who speaks Mandarin, which has a weak FTR, would say “I go listen seminar”.
He concludes that global savings rates by country show that people who speak languages with strong FTR don’t save as much because the languages separate the present from the future. Professor Chen believes this causes people “to devalue future rewards”.
He said: “If you speak a language that doesn’t distinguish strongly between the present and the future, you save a lot more because the future feels closer. If you speak a language that separates present and future events, the future feels more distant, which makes it harder to do things to care for your future self like save money, exercise, and eat better.”
His conclusions appear to ring true in the case of the UK, as statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that we have a total annual savings rate (Government and individual) of 16%. Only the US and Greece, also both strong FTR speakers, save less.
However, both economists and linguists have criticised Professor Chen’s findings, saying language only has a tiny influence on a person's future, with cultural behaviour a far more influential factor.
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