THE BLOG
09/12/2013 03:52 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2013

How Your Native Language Shapes Your Health and Spending Habits

Do you to prefer to save up your money for the future, or splurge on something you want right now? Do you like to hit the gym and go for a jog, or would you rather kick back and relax? Whatever your choices, we tend to believe that these are our decisions to make: it's totally up to us, and all we have to do is choose differently if we want.

Yet a growing body of research shows that we may not always have as much control as we think we do. Scientists have long predicted that the very language we speak can influence or even limit how we think -- and how we behave. The words and grammatical structures of our languages might train us to think in quite different patterns. This video by eBay Deals goes into depth on the economic impact of your native language.

One of the earliest examples of this effect is how we see colors. Remarkable as it may seem, not all people interpret colors in the same way -- because they don't have the same words for these colors. Some languages, like Vietnamese, use the same word for blue and green; other languages like Russian have no word for blue at all, and instead require choosing between the words for light blue or dark blue.

When your language forces you to pay attention to shades of blue -- or lets you ignore the difference between two colors -- this can train your brain to be more or less proficient at categorizing those colors. The science supports this: babies who haven't yet learned Russian are no better at telling apart shades of blue than any other babies, but when these children do learn Russian, they can distinguish light blue and dark blue more accurately than kids who speak English.

The skills we pick up from our languages can be even more useful than that. Certain Aboriginal tribes in Australia speak Kuuk Thaayorre, a language with no words for directions like "left" and "right" relative to the way they're facing. Instead, they only have words for north, south, east and west, and these words are used in place of left and right. This means that, to describe directions, they must always keep an internal compass: if they want to talk about what we call left and right, they need to remember where north is. As it turns out, that's exactly what they do. Even when they're led through unfamiliar buildings with no windows, they can still accurately point to north.

If a simple difference in language can impart such an ability, how else might vocabulary and grammar affect the way we behave? As Yale economist Keith Chen recently discovered, the impact on our lives can be extraordinary. Professor Chen's key insight was that, just as some languages may guide how we think about colors or directions, all languages fall into two distinct categories based on their grammar for referring to future events. While some require their speakers to indicate that they're explicitly talking about something in the future, other languages force people to talk about the future in the same way as they do the present, using the same grammar for both.

For instance, English is known as a "futured" language -- it makes us talk about the present and the future differently. We can say "it is cold today", but if we're referring to tomorrow's weather, we have to say "it will be cold tomorrow." Not all languages make this distinction: Finnish encourages its speakers to use a grammar akin to saying "today be cold" or "tomorrow be cold", and they can say "be cold" whether they're talking about the present or the future.

When people talk about the present and future in the same way, might they also think of them as being the same in certain ways? And what would that mean for how they behave? Chen theorized that a futureless language might lead its speakers to treat the future as being on an even footing with immediate, present-day matters, but a futured language suggests that long-term concerns can be seen as something separate and more distant from right now. Those who consider the future to be far-off and less important might not be as willing to endure present-day tradeoffs for the sake of their future well-being.

Compiling a number of surveys from around the world, Chen examined several metrics of how strongly people focus on the future: their spending habits, their retirement savings, and even how healthy they are. The surveys spanned 76 developed and developing nations on five continents, ranging from Africa to Europe to Asia to the Americas. With demographic information about the respondents' age, gender, marital status, income, education level, children, and religion, Chen was able to make one-to-one comparisons of nearly identical households that differed in only one respect: their primary language.

What Chen found was remarkable. Out of all of these features, one stood out as the single strongest predictor of a person's financial responsibility -- whether their language was futured or futureless. Futured language speakers, presumably seeing the future as distant and less important, were only 69 percent as likely to save money as futureless language speakers. Even after Chen controlled for their countries' GDP, unemployment, growth rate and interest rate, their language remained the biggest influence on their fiscal behavior.

This effect was as substantial in Africa as it was in Europe -- first-world or third-world, the trend is consistent across all continents. Even within the same country, there was an enormous difference: in Switzerland, speakers of German, French and Italian live next door to each other, but those who spoke French or Italian were only 36 percent as likely to save money as their German neighbors.

This isn't just a matter of going out to eat more or less often, or springing for a new TV. These habits have a massive lifetime impact. Futured language speakers have, on average, 39 percent fewer retirement assets saved up than their futureless counterparts. The effect is even seen on the scale of entire nations: countries where a futureless language dominates saved 6 percent more of their GDP each year, making for quite a surplus -- or for futured-language nations, a deficit.

Further supporting Chen's theory, this pattern of future-oriented thinking repeated itself in various measures of health, and the difference is striking. Overall, futured language speakers were 29 percent less likely to exercise, 13 percent more likely to be obese, and 24 percent more likely to smoke. Their peak expiratory flow, a measure of how well they can breathe, was on average 16 fewer liters per minute. They were also less likely to have used condoms or birth control. By almost all measures of responsibility, futureless language speakers came out ahead: keeping the future in mind was clearly associated with forward-thinking behavior and planning.

Language inescapably saturates our lives; it is what enables us to reach the heights of human achievement, serving as the tool with which we think and express ourselves and spread ideas. Yet just as we must learn a language, it seems the language itself may train us: to focus on one area of life and disregard another, to acquire and practice a new skill while putting others on the back burner, to prioritize the present or prepare for our future. As we've now found, our language is much more than just the way we talk. It's the way we spend and save, the way we eat and breathe, and even the way we live and die.

Sources:
The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior
Whorfian Economics
Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution

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