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Speak Chinese or Flemish. Make More Money & Save More Money.

The savings rates among countries with similar economic systems vary enormously may be due primarily to language. 

“Why is it that countries with seemingly similar economies and institutions can display radically different savings behavior?”

Your language may contribute to the way you perceive your connection to the future.

“Futureless language speakers all around the world turn out to be, by and large, some of the world’s best savers.”

People who speak “futureless languages,” such as Mandarin Chinese and Flemish, which employ the same syntax for present and future tenses, tend to save more because they experience a strong linguistic connection between the present and the future.

“By the time they retire, futureless language speakers, holding constant their income, are going to retire with 25% more in savings.”

People who speak “futured languages,” such as French and English, are likely to experience lower savings rates because their language leads them to perceive the future as distant and disconnected from the present.

“We want to be able to provide people tools so that they can consciously make themselves better savers and more conscious investors in their own future.”

At the same time, speakers of futureless languages are less likely to smoke cigarettes than speakers of futured languages.



Could Your Language Affect Your Ability to Save Money? Book Cover Could Your Language Affect Your Ability to Save Money?
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Keith Chen
Professor of Economics at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.


Does the future look like a different world to you, or more like an extension of the present? In an intriguing piece of research, Keith Chen suggests that your attitude about the future has a strong relationship to the language you speak. In a nutshell, some languages refer to the future using verb helpers like "will" and "shall," while others don't have specific verbs to refer to future actions. Chen correlated these two different language types with remarkably different rates of saving for the future (guess who saves more?). He calls this connection the "futurity" of languages. The paper is in the process of being published by the American Economic Review, and it's already generated discussion. Chen says: "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. 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 10^32."

Chen excels in asking unusual questions to yield original results. Another work (with Yale colleague and TEDGlobal 2009 speaker Laurie Santos) examined how monkeys view economic risk--with surprisingly humanlike irrationality. While a working paper asks a surprising, if rhetorical, question: Does it make economic sense for a woman to become a physician?

Chen is currently Uber's Head of Economic Research and is an associate professor of economics at UCLA .

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