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No Tomorrow

25th July 2019

How far does the structure of our native language influence the way we plan for the future?

The link between geography and economic prosperity brings a fresh challenge each time a new set of statistics is made public. We can’t deny that people’s life chances are heavily influenced by their place of birth, their place of residence and the language they speak. Nor can we always reconcile that with our sense of social justice. But what if the language issue goes deeper? What if the grammatical structure of our native language is steering us in one direction or another?

Behavioural economist Keith Chen believes it is. In a wide-ranging study, he found a link between grammatical structure and the tendency to save money and plan for the future. We’re all familiar with the concept of “living like there’s no tomorrow”. Chen’s findings suggest that some of us are saving like there’s no tomorrow.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) monitors financial patterns in 36 countries. Chen was intrigued to find that while prosperous and highly industrialised countries shared many social and economic qualities, they showed radically different habits when it came to the simple act of saving money.

Citizens of countries as diverse as Germany and Japan, or Luxembourg and South Korea, resembled peas in a pod when it came to saving habits. South Koreans and Luxembourgers squirrel away over 25% of their Gross Domestic Product each year. The flipside of that coin sees Britain, the United States and Greece barely saving at all.

With no clear geographical or economic pattern, Keith Chen looked for a linguistic one. What he found was interesting.

The languages we speak can be classified in many different ways, and one of these ways relates to their treatment of the future tense. “Futured” languages such as English and Greek make a clear distinction between the future and the present. “Futureless” languages, on the other hand, refer to future action and current action in the same terms. Japanese and German speakers, who use the same verb conjugation for past, present and future action, put up no linguistic barriers to future behaviour, and Keith Chen believes this is a contributory factor when it comes to financial planning.

When we see the future as something far removed from us, there’s a built-in temptation to shield ourselves from it. Fans of “The Simpsons” will have laughed at Homer’s habit of cheerfully signing up for credit agreements that promise to bankrupt him in the future. He does it because in his mind, the future is a long way away. He also does it simply because he’s Homer Simpson, but the point still stands. I wouldn’t go so far as to say his approach to saving is typical of English speakers, but Keith Chen’s research indicates that when the structure of our native language prompts us to feel a certain way about the future, we’re more likely to take that direction.

The bottom line?

Futureless language speakers:

• Are 30% more likely to save money in any given calendar year

• Finish their working lives with 25% more money saved for their retirement

Applying this nationally, countries where residents speak futureless languages save an average of 5% more of their GDP than their futured neighbours.

Is this a coincidence, or do those who speak futureless languages really have that much of an advantage? As contradictory as it sounds, are they saving like there’s no tomorrow?

Language puzzles can be simple or complex. At Conversis we know how to find the answers. To find out more, or to get a free quote, contact us today. Or tomorrow, if there is one.


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