New Study on How the Language We Speak Affects Us

“The structure of languages affects our judgments and decisions about the future, and this might have dramatic long-term consequences.”

On October 1st I read an interesting article in Scientific American, entitled, “How Your Language Affects Your Wealth and Health.” Dr. Keith Chen, of Yale Business School, had conducted a study analyzing individual-level data — economic decisions, retirement assets, smoking and exercising habits, and general health in older age — from 76 developed and developing countries. He also analyzed national savings rates, country GDP and GDP growth rates. Premised on the fact that some languages have explicit future markers while others have more ambiguous markers between present and future, Dr. Chen correlated the economic and health data with language structure, with striking results. “Speaking a language that has obligatory future markers, such as English, makes people 30 percent less likely to save money for the future,” according to Scientific American.

I shared the article on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and today I came across a terrific little video that summarizes the study’s findings. Good visuals nearly always help me make sense of information; it’s why I made this video, summarizing a different cross-cultural study, earlier this year. I bet you’ll find the movie below helpful as well:

The original study is entitled, “The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets,” written by M. Keith Chen, Yale University, School of Management and Cowles Foundation, April, 2013
Published in the American Economic Review 2013, 103(2): 690-731
Editor’s choice, Science Magazine, Vol 339(4)
Permanent address:

Remember, Cultural Detective is a leading-edge process not only for understanding values and behavioral differences across cultures, but for navigating them successfully.

9 thoughts on “New Study on How the Language We Speak Affects Us

  1. Fascinating Dianne. In anthropology we explore that hypothesis Typically anthropologists look at the type of example in the article, e.g., Inuit have …..words for snow and can distinguish among many varieties of snow – which has effects on several different levels. Thanks for sending this on.

    How are you and your family? Which college did your son choose?



  2. I also think linguistic structuralism is interesting, though limited. How did Dr. Chen account for all of the historical power relations associated with speaking English versus another language, for example. The greater wealth and prosperity associated with speakers of English due to centuries of imperialism must have some impact.


    • A truly powerful point, and not just for English imperialism, Gina. I am not privy to any more of this study than I’ve posted links to here. To me it looks like it was sound research, but that the conclusions about why are still conjecture. And, as you say, there are historical and deep-culture variables beyond language structure that were apparently not considered. Nonetheless interesting stuff. Thank you for joining us here!


  3. Wow! I knew the effect of language, but this is very powerful! Cultural differences play a huge part as well, even within same-language speaking populations. Arial Capital Management and Charles Schwab did studies for years on the savings and investment pattern differences between Black and White Americans. When I was working at a large benefits outsourcing firm, we also looked at these differences and found that, all other things being equal, Black Americans did not save as much in their 401k’s as White Americans; they had higher loans taken out from their savings; and they invested their savings more conservatively. We surmised that cultural differences around short and long-term savings, as well as differing attitudes towards money, had a lot to do with it.


    • Thank you for sharing about the investment studies, Susan. Interesting data, for sure. The interface of language and culture is so dynamic and complex. We are always learning! Bless you for all you do to help develop intercultural competence in this world of ours.


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