Home » The Impact of Language on Economic Behavior: Keith Chen (Transcript)

The Impact of Language on Economic Behavior: Keith Chen (Transcript)

Full text of Professor Keith Chen’s talk: The Impact of Language on Economic Behavior at TEDxYale conference. In this talk, behavioral economist Keith Chen focuses on how people’s economic choices and attitudes are influenced by their language. In simple terms, does your language affect your ability to save money?


Keith Chen – Behavioral economist

Thank you very much.

So in the spirit of this afternoon’s conference, I want to take this opportunity to talk with you a little bit about some new work I’m doing and how it all started — because I saw a map that really freaked me out.

Let me show you that map and give you a little bit of background.

Just to start things off and explain, I’m a behavioral economist here at Yale. And so, one of the things I study is how people make decisions over time:

So, how people think about the future and how people think about the future that influences their behavior with respect to saving, with respect to studying for your exams, with respect to sticking to a diet, with respect to quitting smoking.

Now, what about this map freaked me out in particular?

So let me just say this was a map that was released by the European Science Foundation in the late 1990s. And in particular what freaked me out was this area in blue. Let me put it on a different map so it’s a little bit easier to recognize.

What this is is a map of Northern Europe. And what really, really kind of threw me for a curve was that the European Science Foundation had released a report that a number of kind of very, very reputable researchers had claimed that all of the areas inside this blue region were utterly and totally futureless.

That’s something of an extreme statement.

So I mean, as an economist, I’m someone used to, for example, making predictions that go horribly awry, but this almost takes the cake. You know, perhaps with the exception of Iceland – you can think about current European financial crisis – and the other areas inside this blue area actually are almost perfectly the countries that are doing the best.

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And as an economist, what I would say is it seems crazy to call these places futureless. I mean, these places are all full of countries that are saving a tremendous amount of money, households that are saving a tremendous amount of money, countries that don’t have problems with their bonds and are investing a tremendous amount in public infrastructure and in the future — they just seem to care a lot about the future.

What I realized that led to this confusion, though, is that the team of researchers at the European Science Foundation led by kind of a superstar named Austin Dole, they weren’t talking about what an economist would mean when they say that a place is futureless, because this was a team of linguists.

And what they were saying was that, in fact, not that the households in this region don’t kind of care about the future, but that the languages in this region don’t really talk about the future in the same way that languages outside this area talk.

And what that led me to think about — which I’m going to tell you a little bit about right now — is the connection between economics, how you feel about the future and how your language forces you to talk about the future.

Okay. Let me explain a little bit about what that means.

So, for example – you can probably tell – I’m Chinese, and, you know, growing up I realized that Chinese families are different in many interesting ways.

What’s a little bit subtle — and that I didn’t realize till much later — is that the Chinese language actually forces Chinese speakers to talk about families in subtly different ways. So let me give you an example.

Suppose that a bunch of your friends come to you and say, “Would you like to go out for dinner?”

If you were speaking English with your friends, you could say, “You know, that sounds great. I’m really, really sorry, though, I have an uncle in town, and tomorrow I’m going to go out to dinner with him.”

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Now, if you were speaking Chinese to your friends instead, actually, Chinese the language would force you to include a lot more information that I didn’t just say.

So, for example, there is no general word for uncle in Chinese; instead, what you’d have to specify, what you’d be forced by your language to tell your friends is whether this was an uncle on your mother’s side of the family or your father’s side of the family, and in fact, you’d be forced to say whether or not this was an uncle by birth or by marriage.

So, this is actually a very, very fundamental characteristic of language.

And as you see up there, the linguist Roman Jakobson expressed this best when he said, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.”

So in this sense, Chinese is forcing you to say a lot to your friends about the structure of your family in ways that if you’re an English speaker, you could very well think, “Well, they don’t need to know,” or “It’s none of their business.”

Now, let’s get back to Austin Dole and these kind of European linguists.

What these linguists at the European Science Foundation discovered was that when they looked at languages across the globe, a lot of global languages, what they discovered was that languages differ in a very, very fundamental way in the ways they force their speakers to talk about the future.

And they broke down languages into two rough categorizations: One, I’ll call them “weak-FTR,” or “weak future time reference languages” – are languages like Chinese, Finnish and German, which don’t force speakers, in fact, which allow speakers to speak about the future basically as if it’s the present.

And then other languages, like English, Greek, Italian and Russian – we’ll call them “strong-FTR languages” – force speakers to grammatically realize or to speak as if the future is something viscerally different than the present.

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So for example, when I was just telling you how I would talk to my friends about taking my uncle out for dinner, if I were to say that in Chinese, it would be very, very kind of common and very, very easy for me to just say, ”I can’t go out to dinner tomorrow. I eat with uncle,” whereas to an English speaker, that just sounds very, very strange.

Now, a lot of people when I first showed them this list think it’s very strange because many people in this room probably know that English is a Germanic language and that English and German are close cousins, and yet as you can see, English and German find themselves on opposite ends of this divide.

Many of you probably speak German. One way you can think about this difference is, for example, suppose I was going to try and predict precipitation for tomorrow. In German, I could very easily say “Es regnet morgen” or “Morgen regnet es” or “Morgen ist es kalt,” and that sounds weird to an English speaker because what I’m literally saying is “Morning is cold” or “Tomorrow it rain” instead of “Tomorrow it will rain.”

Now, can this have an effect on your behavior? Can this have an effect on your economics?

Well, I did what, you know, economists with a crazy idea would do, and that is quickly try and dispel myself of crazy ideas by going and looking for as much data as possible around the world and trying to hit it as hardly as I can.

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