The Curse of English as a Native Language

As humans, we suffer from current moment bias. We find it difficult to imagine the future and to alter our expectations and behaviors accordingly. We would rather experience pleasure now and leave pain for later. This translates into our tendency to overspend and not save money.  As English speakers, the way we speak about time may further augment this current moment bias.

The other night I stumbled upon Keith Chen’s TED talk. He addresses how English is a futured language. When we speak, we distinguish between the past, present and future. For example, we say “it rained yesterday,” “it is raining now” or “it will rain tomorrow.” By dividing up the time spectrum, we subtly dissociate the future from the present. The future feels more distant which potentially makes it harder for us to save.

On the other hand if you speak a futureless language such as Chinese, you speak about the present and the future identically. You say, “yesterday it rain,” “now it rain,” or “tomorrow it rain.”  This causes a speaker to think about the present and future identically which makes them more inclined to save. In fact, Chen found that futureless language speakers are 30 percent more likely to report having saved in any given year. By the time they retire, futureless language speakers will have 25 percent more in savings.

Our current decisions have delayed consequences. And language isn’t a good excuse. It may be another barrier to good habits, but we have to consciously make ourselves better savers and invest in our futures.

You can read the transcript of Chen’s “Could your language affect your ability to save money?” here.