You Use Your Language Unconsciously, Letting It Rule
Can Using English Make You Poor When You Retire?
Could the language we speak skew our financial decision-making, and does the fact that you're reading this in English make you less likely than a Mandarin speaker to save for your old age? We excerpt this 2013 article from the BBC, Feb 22.
by Tim BowlerIf your language separates the future and the present in its grammar, that seems to lead you to slightly disassociate the future from the present.
If I wanted to explain to an English-speaking colleague why I can't attend a meeting later today, I could not say 'I go to a seminar', English grammar would oblige me to say 'I will go, am going, or have to go to a seminar'.
If, on the other hand, I were speaking Mandarin, it would be quite natural for me to omit any marker of future time and say 'I go listen seminar' since the context leaves little room for misunderstanding.
Speakers of languages which only use the present tense when dealing with the future are likely to save more money than those who speak languages which require the use a future tense.
The act of savings is fundamentally about understanding that your future self -- the person you're saving for -- is in some sense equivalent to your present self.
If your language separates the future and the present in its grammar that seems to lead you to slightly disassociate the future from the present every time you speak.
That effectively makes it harder for you to save.
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JJS: Once you become fluent, you use language without thinking. Hence the language you use can use you. In linguistics this is known as the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis. But the idea is much older than that. You can find Confucius saying something like, “He who defines the terms wins the debate.”
However much your words and grammar influence your thinking is hard to pin down, because it is subtle. The link is not one of total mind control, obviously.
For instance, language tends to turn any change or movement into a thing (“reification”), like a river. Hence it comes as a surprising insight to hear the old aphorism, “you can’t step into the same river twice.” Of course not. It’s not a thing but a flow that’s constantly changing, despite it being a noun in our minds.
This example is not so serious but the influence of language can get serious as when we believe something has value. It has no such thing. Take it apart, you won’t find any value in it. Deep down, value is not a noun or adjective but a verb, something we do, we evaluate, which is why we find it revealing to hear “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.” So when you hear an economist say something is valuable, ask, valuable to whom? When you hear a politician say something is important, ask, it matters to whom? Usually you’ll find that the speaker is trying, consciously or not, to pawn off their own agenda as the group’s -- usually successfully, or these devices would not now be grammatical necessities.
Perhaps if people used language more consciously, and thought more clearly, we’d be living in a geonomic society by now.
Editor Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics and helped prepare a course for the UN on geonomics. To take the “Land Rights” course, click here .
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