Want to be better with money? Learn a new language
Your choice of language may be affecting how good you are at saving money
Most of us believe that in the future we'll earn more, save more and spend less. It's unlikely. Just as most of us believe that we'll have more time in the future and become more organised versions of ourselves, the evidence suggests it won't happen. For many of us, now never feels like a good time to save, mainly because there are so many daily financial pressures and retirement feels a long way off. Yes, we will start saving, we tell ourselves - but not yet. There's still plenty of time for that. We find it hard to resist buying the things we want now, in favour of a future that's hard to imagine in any great detail. But language can make a difference to our saving in two very different ways. Savings rates vary significantly between countries. This could be down to the language people speak. The idea that language can influence our thoughts, known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, has long been a subject of debate. People who speak Russian, for example, who have different words for light and dark blue, find it easier on average to distinguish between different shades of blue than English speakers do. Could something similar be happening with the act of saving money? When it comes to talking about the future, in some languages you must change the tense. In English you might say, "Tomorrow will be cold." The future is emphasised, making English what's known as a strong future-time language. In languages such as German you can sometimes use the present tense, but just add "tomorrow" to make it clear that you're talking about the future. So you can say "Morgen ist kalt" ("Tomorrow is cold"). German is therefore a weak future-time language. If language does influence thought then in theory this makes the future feel closer for German speakers than for English speakers. This could in turn discourage English speakers from saving, because the future feels as though it's a long way away, so there's plenty of time for saving later. UCLA economics professor Keith Chen has gathered some intriguing evidence on this subject. When he compared saving rates in 76 countries, which impacts unemployment, growth, level of development and many other factors, he found that people who speak languages with weak future time references do indeed pay into their savings accounts twice as often as people speaking strong future time languages. These are correlational findings, of course. We can't be certain that the language spoken caused the behaviour. Perhaps people in some places always felt the future was far away and this had an impact on the development of the language.
There were a few exceptions: Ireland, Russia and the Czech Republic have languages which emphasise the future tense, yet did well in the savings chart. But the most fascinating result came from Ethiopia, where three strong and three weak future time languages are spoken. The language each person spoke was found to be a very good predictor of the size of their savings. But if moving country - and waiting to become so fluent in another language that you even think it - feels like an extreme way of increasing your savings, you could stay where you are and put geography to work in a different way. We have a strong sense that our money exists physically somewhere, even though we know it's just numbers on a screen and that the bank doesn't really have a pile of cash with our name on it. US social psychologist Sam Maglio demonstrated that our financial decisions vary depending on whether the physical location of the money we are considering is geographically near or far away from us.
He gave New Yorkers the chance to win a lottery where the $50 (£38) winnings would be deposited in a special account. People were more prepared to leave their money in the account for three months in exchange for a $15 bonus if they thought the account was based in Los Angeles, than if it was based in their home city. If money feels further away, a psychological barrier is created that might be just enough to deter you from withdrawing it to spend so soon. So if you're looking for savings options and you live in Scotland, you should consider opening an account in Devon - just in case the future doesn't bring you the riches you deserve.
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