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Insights China

Three Questions for Keith Chen, Professor, Yale School of Management

When language influences economics

Keith Chen, Associate Professor of Economics at the Yale School of Management, is working on ground-breaking research on how languages influence savings patterns. Chen’s approach to research is to use adventurous, genre-blurring tools to see how economics, linguistics, and psychology might affect each other. His most current studies look at the relationship between how the concept of the future, as reflected in national languages, might cause people to behave in certain ways. We discussed his findings, with a focus on Mandarin.

In your recent TED Global presentation and in your research at Yale, you use Mandarin as an example of a language that does not have a future tense. What are the key differences between such a “non-futured” language and “futured” ones?

The feature of language that I study is how much a given language forces or does not force its speakers to mark time as they talk. One way to understand this feature of languages is to note that Mandarin doesn’t have tenses in the same way English does, and this allows Mandarin speakers a lot more flexibility in the way they speak about time. For example, if I wanted to explain to an English-speaking colleague why I can’t attend a meeting later today, I could NOT say “I go to a seminar.” English grammar would force me to note that this is in the future, and say “I (will go, am going, have to go) to a seminar.” If on the other hand I were speaking Mandarin, it would be quite natural for me to say Wo˘ qù tı¯ng jia˘ngzuò (I go listen seminar). I could easily have said the same thing if I was talking about a seminar I was at yesterday, as long as the context was clear. English forces its speakers to habitually divide time between the present and future in a way that Mandarin (which has no tenses) does not. Of course, this does not mean that Mandarin speakers are unable (or even less able) to understand the difference between the present and future, only that they are not required to attend to it every time they speak.

Can you summarize how speaking a non-futured language such as Mandarin generally correlates with spending habits?

What I wondered when I became aware of these differences is: Could how you speak about time affect how you make choices across time? In my work, I study whether being required to speak in a distinct way about future events (as English requires) leads speakers to take fewer future-oriented actions like savings or minding their health, because it subtly encourages them to think of the future as something distant from the present. Put another way, I ask whether a habit of speech that disassociates the future from the present can cause people to devalue future rewards. What I find is really strong patterns all around the world consistent with this hypothesis. All around the globe, there are pockets of futureless language speakers like the Chinese. And all around the world these people turn out to be, by and large, the world’s best savers. This not only appears across countries, but also appears within countries that have multiple languages, like Belgium, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Malaysia and Singapore. This tendency also does not abate no matter how many characteristics of people accounted for: wealth, level of development, age, weather, family structure, or even religion.

Does speaking a non-futured language correlate with other habits, too? For example, does it correlate to health-related behaviors?

Yes, it turns out it does. One way to think about this is that we have to do many things in our lives, like exercise, that are a lot like saving. Saving is giving up money today in exchange for money tomorrow; exercising is giving up time today in exchange for health tomorrow. And when you look at these health behaviors, all around the world you see the exact same patterns.

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