Words to live by? How the language we speak influences our behaviour

7th September 2020 13:28

Written by Elliot Simmonds, Research Director. Email Elliot or comment on LinkedIn.
Words to live by - How the language we speak influences our behaviour

It’s an oft-repeated notion that Eskimos have 50 words for snow. The truth of this is debatable and I’m no linguist. Still, the idea, right or wrong, raises some questions. Does the place we live influence the language we speak? Beyond that, does the language we speak influence the way we think, and does the way we speak impact how we act?

It’s an interesting although not wholly surprising phenomenon that English, for instance, has so many words for water. Obviously there’s water the liquid, ice for water the solid, lake for a big bit of fresh water, puddle for a little bit of water that might be temporary, pond for a little bit of water that looks like it might be permanent, river for a long bit of water, before we even get to, brook, beck, rill, runnel, creek, burn, rillet or a gill (all, basically, streams).

We don’t have many words for ‘sand’.

So, the things we encounter most commonly we give specific names to easily distinguish between their many forms. Our world, our context, impacts our language, which evolves to become the most useful it can be in terms of communicating with others. But, what if it could be useful in other ways? We need a little bit of ground work here.

In English, if I said: ‘This is my uncle’, you would understand me and we could all move on. You might ask his name.

In Mandarin Chinese, the linguistic structure would make it obligatory for me to tell you whether that uncle was by marriage or by birth, on my mother’s side or father’s side, and if he was my father’s brother, whether my uncle was older or younger than my father. This information is obligatory – you can’t speak properly and ignore it.[1]

This means that to speak Mandarin Chinese properly you have to be thinking, to at least a small degree, about the relationships between yourself and family members in a much more detailed way than we do in English.

Now, this issue of language forcing us to consider elements of our lives becomes particularly interesting when we consider time, and the degree to which languages utilise future tenses. In English, we are forced to modify our grammar in order to indicate timing:

It rained yesterday. It is raining now. It will rain tomorrow.

Again, taking Mandarin, the opposite is true. The equivalent phrases would sound odd to an English speaker – yesterday it rain, today it rain, tomorrow it rain.

English then, as with many languages, forces us to actively consider the timings of events or actions in our day to day lives – and our sense of future and past is acute. Conversely, some languages, at quite a fundamental level, do not force speakers to divide time in to neat sections on a regular or near constant basis.[2]

Now, it’s all well and good having to think about your family or the weather. In fact, it might be quite nice. But what if we take this a step further and look at some real-world impacts?

Real world applications

Work by the behavioural economist, Dr. Keith Chen (that bit about Mandarin is his)[3], suggests that some languages, particularly those without a clearly defined future tense, can have an impact on our behaviour in the here and now and affect issues of health, saving and retirement assets.[4]

Chen initially looked at OECD member states (largely, the richer, more industrialised nations of the world) and found that despite large similarities in political freedoms and institutions, these countries have vastly different savings rates. On further exploration, he found a clear connection between these nations and the languages they speak.

Words to live by? How the language we speak influences our behaviour

The chart above is fairly clearly showing that the futureless languages are further to the left, and are largely present in cultures with higher savings rates, than the futured languages – equating to a difference of roughly 5% of GDP per year – for 2020 in the UK, that’s about 109 billion pounds.[5] Now consider that figure, with compound interest, across a typical working life – serious implications for a sovereign state and its people.[6]

Chen went on to review matched pairs of large datasets in a number of countries around the world where large native populations speak both futured and futureless languages, but controlling for a wide range of other factors (age, income, gender, family status, religion, etc.). In short, the experiment was akin to comparing two identical families in Belgium – one of which speaks Flemish and one of which speaks French.

Even after these large-scale controls, Chen found that futureless language speakers were 31% more likely to save, and to have accumulated 39% more wealth by retirement. They are also 24% less likely to smoke, 13% less likely to be obese, 29% more likely to be more physically active and 21% more likely to have used a condom in their last sexual encounter.[7]

Thinking about the future doesn’t just make you more likely to sacrifice in the present for future comfort, it also makes you less likely to risk pain in the future for gratification in the present.

Anyone with children and a bone to pick about that analogy… you can email me at the top!


In a language like English, which is heavily futured, we must explicitly highlight the futuristic nature of an activity (e.g. I will, I am going to) and this allows us (consciously or otherwise) to separate the future from the present. Thus, we conceptualise the future in a very different way to how we conceptualise the here and now: the future is, to some degree, a different world.[8]

For speakers of languages without such obvious future markers, such as Mandarin, the future can seem a lot closer.

So what?

Well, as a starter for ten – if you want a nice retirement home and your kids have a choice between French and German at school, pick German every time. Based on the OECD data, see if you can get Japanese or Mandarin on the curriculum.

Closer to home, researchers need to be aware of the effects of these subtle variations in linguistic architecture for global studies – particularly as a driver of difference in multi-country work.

In the here and how though, this strikes me as something worthy of more exploration for a whole host of applications around nudging. Whilst we can’t change the language people speak, can we look at the way we speak our own language and the way we phrase things? With this kind of data outlining the positive influence that a way of speaking can have on a way of thinking and acting, can we get even more granular in the techniques we use to encourage people to make positive choices?

Do you know what I mean?

Let me know on LinkedIn.

[2] Obviously, this does not mean that Mandarin speakers are less able to consider the difference between past and future – just that they are not forced to consider it every time they speak.

[3] https://www.anderson.ucla.edu/faculty_pages/keith.chen/papers/Final_AER13.pdf https://www.ted.com/talks/keith_chen_could_your_language_affect_your_ability_to_save_money#t-662615https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-language-effects-your-wealth-health/

[4] It’s worth stressing that this is related to, but different from, the idea of temporal or hyperbolic discounting in behavioural economics (present bias). There is varied and abundant literature which outlines that people will, typically, opt for a lesser reward in the short term over a larger one they have to wait for.

[6] Splitting it evenly across the UK it’s about £1627 each, per year, in deposits – assuming no inflation. With interest of 1% a year, across fifty years, it’s about £108k per person, of which 25k is interest. 

[7] All figures taken from the published paper apart from condom use which is taken from Dr. Chen’s TED Talk. https://www.anderson.ucla.edu/faculty_pages/keith.chen/papers/Final_AER13.pdf https://www.ted.com/talks/keith_chen_could_your_language_affect_your_ability_to_save_money#t-662615

[8] Apologies to fans of L.P Hartley for this heinous adulteration. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/L._P._Hartley


Get more DJS News: 

We are recruiting again!
Jack went to Poland: What I did with my DJS volunteering day...
Our contribution during the Covid-19 crisis

Share this article...

© DJS Research 2021