Behavorial economist Keith Chen has found that speakers of “futureless” languages—languages like Mandarin, in which one doesn’t say “yesterday it rained, today it’s raining, tomorrow it will rain,” but instead, “yesterday it rain, today it rain, tomorrow it rain"—exhibit markedly different behaviors.
They tend to see the future, Chen explains in this TED talk, as an extension of the present, instead of something far off, and so engage in behaviors in which there’s up-front "pain” for a later reward. (Smoking is an example of the reverse—an immediate reward for later pain.) Not only are they much less likely to smoke but they’re generally much better savers.
Specifically, Chen’s data found that between families that were identical in a long list of ways, except that one family spoke a futureless language and the other didn’t (for example, two families in Brussels, one of which speaks Flemmish and the other French), the family that spoke the futureless language was 30 percent more like to save in a year and to retire with 25 percent more in savings.
“While the data I analyze don’t allow me to completely understand what role language plays in these relationships, they suggest that there is something really remarkable to be explained about the interaction of language and economic decision-making,” Chen said in his TED bio.
“These correlations are so strong and survive such an aggressive set of controls, that the chances they arise by random lies somewhere between one in 10,000 and one in 10 [to the 32nd power].”