Is our language stopping us from saving?

By: Tim Bennett
Why do we save less than our counterparts in other developed countries? Tim Bennett explains that the answer may lie in the very nature of the English language.


In the forthcoming Issue of our quarterly client magazine, Confidant, we feature a panel discussion on the subject of money and some of the reasons we don’t talk about it as often, or as openly, as we should. Here is a short extract, based on a conversation with behavioural psychologist, Paul Davies. For the full article, please see the Spring Issue, due out in the next couple of weeks.

Paul: “A fascinating paper came out in 2013 written by Keith Chen (UCLA). He noticed a correlation between a language that is what he calls “futureless”, and the behaviour of the people who use it.

To give a very simple example, in English we say “It is raining day. It will rain tomorrow”. In German by contrast, you would say “It rains today. It rains tomorrow” (morgen regnet es). The future tense is either absent, or some might argue, implied.  In English it is explicit.

Chen found that this difference in linguistic structure and the use of tenses in particular to either connect (German) or disassociate (English) the present and the future, correlated really well with savings behaviour. In Germany, China and Japan – all places with versions of what he calls “futureless languages”, people are 31% more likely to save money than they are in English-speaking countries. They also behave differently when it comes to looking after their long-term health – they are more likely to exercise and less likely to smoke, for example. This is contentious research, but I nonetheless find it fascinating.

If Chen is right, then perhaps we need to find a way to move away from talking about saving as something related to a distant, remote future. We need to find a way to break down the mental barrier that our language creates when it comes to thinking about saving.”

The full paper that Paul refers to may be read here.