Economics and linguistics merge in study

According to a Yale professor’s recent study, high savings rates in certain countries may be due to how citizens speak in the future tense.

In a working paper published in August, Keith Chen, an associate professor of economics at the Yale School of Management, argued that speakers of languages with a “weak,” or less distinguished, future tense are more likely to save money for the future. According to the paper, speakers of these languages feel more connected to their future selves because of the linguistic difference, which makes them 30 percent more likely to have saved money in a given year. However, three linguistics professors interviewed said they remain deeply skeptical about the implications of Chen’s research for their field.

Chen said he first realized language and saving might be connected early in his career: His parents, “invariant savers” who grew up in poverty, would remind him to save more because he “wasn’t speaking Chinese,” he said.

“Different languages make you pay attention to different things,” Chen said.

For example, Chen said, in English one says “I will be meeting with a student tomorrow,” but the equivalent phrase in Mandarin Chinese is “I meet with student tomorrow.” He explained that languages such as English use a “strong,” clearly differentiated and obligatory future tense, which creates a “bigger wedge between you and ‘future you’.” By contrast, languages with a weak and non-obligatory future tense, such as Chinese, make less of a distinction between the present and the future, he said.

These differences then force the speaker to subconsciously consider his or her relationship to the future differently, Chen said.

Chen said his research brings economic and linguistic trends together. In economic theory, he said, uncertainty about the future makes people value the future more. Therefore, a language that is less specific about timing will lead a speaker to save more for the future. In linguistics, the present and future can feel more similar if they are expressed in the same way, so it is easier to save for a future that feels less different, Chen said.

However, Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, disputed Chen’s connection between economics and linguistics.

“The notion that having lexically specified tenses in a language (like the Indo-European languages) makes it harder for a speaker to identify his future self with his present self seems very far-fetched indeed,” Lakoff wrote in an email to the News. “You could just as well argue that Indo-European languages, because they have explicit future forms, encourage speakers to envision the future as distinct from the present, and therefore save for that time.”

Chen said his research showed that native speakers of certain languages, including Japanese, German, Scandinavian languages and Chinese, all of which have weak or non-obligatory future tenses, were correlated with higher savings rates. But he admitted that it remains difficult to separate language and culture. In the conclusion to his paper, available on his website, he acknowledged the objection that language may be reflecting — rather than causing — the differences in savings trends between cultures.

Tom Wasow, chair of the Department of Linguistics at Stanford University, wrote in an email to the News that he was “very suspicious [of Chen’s] quick-and-dirty bifurcation of languages” between those with a strong future tense, and those with a weak one.

“I suspect [Chen’s] classifications came from economics, not linguistics,” Wasow said.

Chen said linguists have been unreceptive to his findings because many believe that all languages are equally conducive to cognition.

The idea of grammatical forms affecting thought has been controversial since the 1920s, when it was introduced by linguist Benjamin Whorf, Lakoff said. She added that most linguists would agree that the forms available to speakers of a language make it easier, but not overwhelmingly so, to express or comprehend certain ideas. Nonetheless, she described Chen’s results as “nonsense”.

“It is amazing how people without training in linguistics consider themselves expert enough to make pronouncements about language,” Lakoff wrote. “It’s as if I made statements about economics on the grounds that there are words written on our money.”

Professor Robert Shiller, Arthur M. Okun Professor of Economics at Yale, said that Chen’s general premise sounded plausible, but is likely only “part of the story.” He suggested other causes for China’s high savings rate, such as the country’s one-child policy.

Going forward, Chen said he is still searching for future policy implications for his findings.

“We’re not going to strip future tense from English, or switch the national language to Finnish,” Chen said.

Chen’s paper was published through the Cowles Foundation, which provides support for economics research at Yale.

Comments

  • anonymouz

    “In a working paper published in August. . . ”

    Working papers are not published, fyi.