Everyday Life

The power of language

What’s in a language? Does our native language have an impact on our identity, on the way we act? 

Well, turns out that it does. Every language has its own peculiar set of rules and constructions that allow its speakers to convey information in a way that is meaningful and logical to the other speakers. All those rules, declinations, verbs do not only provide language-learners with headaches, they also influence the way in which we form thoughts in our heads, order facts and organise perceptions of the world. 

Think about it, we reason using words most of the time, we cannot avoid using language in our everyday life! Since childhood, we are exposed to stimuli, each associated with a word, a sentence, an exclamation from our parents or the people raising us, even when it’s way too early for us to reply. 

Is it then so surprising that language starts playing a role in the way we perceive reality? 

There are various theories and hypotheses affirming the role of native language on the behaviour and thoughts of individuals. The two main ones are:  

  1. Linguistic Relativism (also known as Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), stating that we perceive reality through the cultural lenses of language and its constructs and that we are influenced by them; 
  1. Linguistic Determinism, according to which the structure of language limits the understanding and perception of reality and, consequently, people’s thoughts. 

Language and approach to savings 

Economics is a fascinating field of study. More than on money and assets per se, it focuses on the choices made by people regarding their allocation and use of such resources. This discipline studies the hidden mechanisms behind savings behaviour, investments decisions, spending and any other kind of allocation of the set of resources that individuals are endowed with. Overall, It studies behaviour. That same behaviour that is influenced and shaped by language. 

Back in 2011, behavioural economist Keith Chen was deeply fascinated by the studies linking language with humans’ perception and used those insights in his own research. 

He was then interested in studying the differences in savings behaviour of people across different countries. This phenomenon is surely determined by many different factors, being them cultural, related to the kind of government’s interventions, incentives in place and so on, so forth. 

Professor Chen found that language also has its part, and in particular, the way in which language defines the perception of the future. 

There are mainly two ways in which future tenses are constructed in a language. To keep it short, it can keep the same verb as in the present/past tense and add something that will make it clear that we are referring to a future moment (“futureless” languages, such as German, where to say that tomorrow will rain you say “Morgen regnet es”, while to say that it is raining now you say “Jetzt regnet es”), or it will directly change the verb itself, thus marking the future as something clearly different from the present (“futured” languages, as it’s the case with English with “it’s raining now” and “it will rain tomorrow“). 

The fact that in the “futured” languages there is the need to change the word standing for the verb we are using, rather than simply using the same word in different contexts, implies that the speakers of those languages need to pay extra attention to the difference between present and future, thus automatically nudging them to consider these two moments further apart in the order of things. On the other hand, speakers of “futureless” languages tend to perceive present and future as similar, more close to each other. 

Human behaviour consistently shows the presence of a discounting factor when evaluating future outcomes (Present bias), resulting in the preference for immediate rewards, even if small, compared to eventually bigger ones, but at a future point in time.  

Now, remember those “futureless” language speakers? They perceive the future as less distant and different from the present than the others! Thus, the discounting effect on them is smaller! 

How Language Affects Wealth
The distribution of savings rate of OECD countries, distinguishing between those speaking prevalently a “futured” and a “futureless” language.

In the research process, in order to rule out all the effects that could result from national peculiarities or other confounding factors, the focus was restricted on a handful of countries that presented similar families according to every measurable characteristic, except for the type of language spoken. To make an example of such countries that were taken in consideration to run the model, the sampled Swiss population was composed of 52% German speakers (futureless) and 48% French and Italian speakers (both futured languages), while the Singaporean sample wascomposed of 63% percent futureless-language speakers (speaking Malay and Mandarin), while the remaining part was an English or Tamil speaker, two highly futured languages. Nigeria, Malaysia, Ethiopia, Estonia and Burkina Faso also satisfied the requirements to be considered in the model. 

The results of the study conducted by Professor Chen show indeed that, comparing similar families in the same nations with the only difference standing in the use of a “futureless” rather than a “futured” language, the former are more likely to save more than the latter. More specifically, the “futureless” language speakers are 30% more likely to have saved something in any given year and, by the time they retire, they are going to end up with 25% more in savings than their counterpart speaking “futured” languages. 

The Foreign Language Effect 

What about people speaking more than one language then? Does our non-native language influence us as well? 

The answer is, not as powerfully. In fact, thinking in a language that is not our native one canactually help us thinking more critically and avoiding being subject to cognitive biases based on the use of words. This is defined as the “Foreign Language Effect”. 

Thinking in a language that is not our own requires us to pay more attention to what we say and to the way we say it, and in turn to how something is told to us. We need to focus more on the sentences we hear or that we need to enunciate for the very reason that we are less used to the rules and structure of that language. Furthermore, studies have shown different positive effects onthe brains of bilingual individuals. 

Using a non-native language, other than preventing cognitive biases, has been shown to prevent superstitious beliefs, and makes individuals give different responses to morally challenging questions, suggesting the modification of what is conceived as moral or immoral. 

The foreign Language Effect can also be used as a nudge, since actively choosing to take important decisions in a non-native language could be interpreted as a behaviour impacting  our choices, without limiting the other possibilities, following the definition given by Thaler and Sunstein. 

By exposing individuals to questions in their non-native language, negative effects from biases and heuristics could be prevented or limited, thus helping them making the best decision for them, and eventually for the rest of society (e.g. asking for sustainable food practices is at the benefit of both individual and society). 

In conclusion, languages are one of the most interesting human (almost innate) inventions. They show the beauty of diversity across different populations, and indeed they also act directly on those diversities by affecting reasoning and perception. To finish on a nerdy note, the world of literature has always known the power of words and language; thinking of Orwell in particular, in the dystopian novel “1984” the manipulation of the language was probably the most powerful tool that the “Big Brother” could possibly use to manipulate the thoughts of the individuals, ensuring their loyalty and in fact making them unable to think in ways that could be subversive or damaging to the Government. Without suggesting such an extreme and negative use of this language effect, I’d take this as a monument to the importance and magnificence of language, and use it as inspiration to reflect on the effect that it can have on our own lives, possibly exploiting them for the good. 


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