Language Insight has reported before on the way the language a person speaks can shape their view of the world. However, it seems a person’s mother tongue can influence a lot more than just this.

Economist Keith Chen produced a paper last year on the effect language has on economic behaviour, and found a person’s mother tongue could shape everything from their retirement assets to the national savings rate. How is this possible?

Back to the future

Chen surmised that whether a person speaks a future or futureless language influences their behaviour. In English, a speaker has to differentiate the future from the present. So they would say “I hear it will snow tomorrow”. However, in German a person might say “It snows tomorrow” in the present tense, creating no distinction between the present and future.

According to Chen’s theory, the fact the English language makes speakers separate the present from the future means that they regard the future as a distant time. Meanwhile, those who do not separate the two think of the future as much closer.

As a result of this, people who speak futureless languages are more likely to save money and prepare for retirement and are also less likely to indulge in harmful behaviour such as smoking and overeating. This is because psychologically they do not perceive the future as some far-off event they can put off preparing for, unlike those who speak future languages, Chen explains.

He actually conducted his research by carrying out statistical analysis on weather forecasts and was surprised to discover that a 20 percentage point increase in the use of future tenses to describe the weather directly correlated with a one percent reduction in the amount of Gross Domestic Product that country saved. In fact, these trends are apparent regardless of a person’s education, income, religion or family background. It would seem it is purely down to the language they speak.

Lost in translation

However, there are plenty of other ways in which language affects behaviour, as TED Blog notes. For instance, if you were born and raised in the Australian Aboriginal community of Pormpuraaw, you would probably have a better sense of direction than if you originated from Redditch in the West Midlands. That’s because – as Lera Boroditsky, writing for the Wall Street Journal – points out, people from Pormpuraaw would describe an object or location in absolute terms. An English speaker tends to use relative terms, such as “the shop is on the left (of me)”, while someone from Pormpuraaw would say it is to the northwest. Because they refer to the actual geographic location of places and objects, so too they have a better grasp of their own orientation.

The native language also influences what is perceived as important. An article in Scientific American by Boroditsky, who is a psychology professor, revealed that children who speak Hebrew learn what their own gender is an average of one year earlier than their counterparts who speak Finnish. The reason? Because the Finnish language does not mark gender, while Hebrew frequently does.

As you’ll remember from our earlier feature, How Language Affects Your View of the World, mother tongue influences everything from counting to what colours you perceive. Most interestingly, it impacts upon the assignation of blame.

A 2010 study conducted by Caitlin Fausey at Stanford University asked participants to watch a video of a person dropping some eggs and breaking them. Subjects were then asked to name the person who dropped the eggs. The results showed that English speakers were more likely to recall the name than their Japanese or Spanish counterparts. This is because the English language description of the scenario would be: “John broke the eggs.” Meanwhile, a translation of the Japanese description would be: “The eggs broke.” Although the eggs were clearly broken by mistake, it is an English language custom to assign the action to someone, and as a result, blame is pinned to the person responsible.

So, the language you speak impacts upon everything from your retirement plans to your ability to find your way when you’re lost. You’ll never take your mother tongue for granted again!