Is Your Language Making You Broke and Fat? How Language Can Shape Thinking and Behavior (and How It Can’t)

By Julie Sedivy | February 27, 2012 1:53 pm

Julie Sedivy is the lead author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You And What This Says About You. She contributes regularly to Psychology Today and Language Log. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary, and can be found at juliesedivy.com and on Twitter/soldonlanguage.

Keith Chen, an economist from Yale, makes a startling claim in an unpublished working paper: people’s fiscal responsibility and healthy lifestyle choices depend in part on the grammar of their language.

Here’s the idea: Languages differ in the devices they offer to speakers who want to talk about the future. For some, like Spanish and Greek, you have to tack on a verb ending that explicitly marks future time—so, in Spanish, you would say escribo for the present tense (I write or I’m writing) and escribiré for the future tense (I will write). But other languages like Mandarin don’t require their verbs to be escorted by grammatical markers that convey future time—time is usually obvious from something else in the context. In Mandarin, you would say the equivalent of I write tomorrow, using the same verb form for both present and future.

Chen’s finding is that if you divide up a large number of the world’s languages into those that require a grammatical marker for future time and those that don’t, you see an interesting correlation: speakers of languages that force grammatical marking of the future have amassed a smaller retirement nest egg, smoke more, exercise less, and are more likely to be obese. Why would this be? The claim is that a sharp grammatical division between the present and future encourages people to conceive of the future as somehow dramatically different from the present, making it easier to put off behaviors that benefit your future self rather than your present self.

Chen’s paper has yet to be accepted for publication, but it’s already generated a lot of press of the sort that’s festooned with flashing lights. For example, in his popular blog, Andrew Sullivan headlined the story with the pronouncement Why Greeks Haven’t Saved for a Rainy Day. A facetious headline, no doubt. But before someone suggests that the European Union should make bailouts of troubled countries contingent on their retiring their grammatical tense markers, it’s worth taking a reality check about the ways in which language can or can’t affect the thoughts and behaviors of its speakers.

Claims about the tight coupling of language and culture are incredibly seductive. To many people, it’s intuitively obvious that dropping consonants in pronunciation is the mark of a lazy culture, that romancing someone is easiest in a language that’s intrinsically as soothing and soft as French, and that the disciplined German mind is in part a product of the strictly rigid and orderly German language. The trouble is, such intuitively obvious observations are bubbles just waiting to be burst by the sharp edges of actual linguistic evidence. As noted by Guy Deutscher, in his book Through the Language Glass, “the industrious Protestant Danes have dropped more consonants onto their icy, windswept soil than any indolent tropical tribe. And if Germans do have systematic minds, this is just as likely to be because their exceedingly erratic mother tongue has exhausted their brains’ capacity to cope with any further irregularity.”

One of the most unkillable misconceptions is that if a language has no word for a particular concept, then its speakers must have trouble conceiving of it. Is Italian culture vulnerable to corruption because there is no Italian word that directly translates as accountability? Not likely. English doesn’t have a word for a silk green-and-pink paisley shirt, left untucked on one side, but I doubt that this makes it hard for you to picture one. Yet, this kind of thinking proves irresistible to many people—it’s even been used to argue that people who speak languages without future tense marking are unable to think about the future in any meaningful way.

If this feels intuitively plausible to you, consider the following: In English, we mark gender on the third person pronouns he and she. But we don’t mark gender when we use pronouns to refer to a group of men or women—we use they in both cases. Does this mean that we suffer confusion about people’s gender as soon as they congregate in groups? Obviously not. And do languages that obsessively classify all nouns as gendered (as does Spanish) result in cultures that are more segregated by gender than those that don’t have any such linguistic distinctions? If so, we’d expect more egalitarian cultures to spring from entirely gender-neutral languages like Dari, the variant of Persian that’s spoken in Afghanistan. But as it turns out, the line between grammar and thought is simply not that direct. Languages have an enormous amount of leeway in expressing the same thoughts, and the specific methods they settle on are surprisingly arbitrary.

That’s not to say that language scientists haven’t found any reliable influences of language on behavior. They have. But these tend to be fairly subtle. For instance, many languages force their speakers to sort inanimate objects seemingly randomly into grammatical genders—so to Spanish speakers, a chair is marked as feminine (la silla) but to German speakers, it’s masculine (der Stuhl). If you were to ask a Spanish speaker to imagine an animated chair as a cartoon character, he’d be more likely to choose a female voice for the character. But no one’s ever found a clear causal link between grammatical features of a language and the sort of large-scale societal behaviors that Chen argues for in his paper. And because Chen’s study simply looks for correlations, we can’t be sure that grammar is causing the behavior. It’s also possible that tense marking and live-for-the-day cultural attitudes spread together throughout populations without one causing the other. For example, I bet you’d find a correlation between tonal languages and the use of chopsticks at mealtimes, simply because both of these spread throughout a particular geographic region. But you’d be hard-pressed to tell a decent story about how the use of tone to distinguish word meanings leads to dexterity with certain dining implements.

But still, we’re left with a puzzle: If language structure has quite a limited effect on the way we think and act, why then do we have these sturdy impressions that some languages are inherently more romantic, slovenly, logical, or fussy than others? The answer is that these impressions say less about the nature of those languages than they do about the strong associations we’ve forged between certain languages and the culture of their speakers. And these language-based associations can apparently trigger different behaviors.

A particularly nice illustration comes from a study by Dirk Akkermans and colleagues, in which bilingual Dutch subjects played a business variant of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, intended to test the degree of cooperative versus competitive behavior. (The game is set up so that you reap the highest profits if both you and your partner choose a cooperative strategy of keeping prices for your products high, and the lowest profits if you play cooperatively but your partner chooses to undersell you.) Half of the subjects played the game in English, and half played the game in Dutch—the idea being that the English language is more closely associated with highly individualistic and competitive cultures than Dutch. The subjects who played the game in English did indeed choose a more competitive strategy than those who played it in Dutch.

But the effects of language on strategy choice really depended on how much direct exposure to Anglophone culture the subjects had. Among subjects who’d lived in an Anglophone country for at least three months, those who played the game in Dutch played cooperatively 51% of the time, while those who played it in English did so only 37% of the time. In contrast, among those who hadn’t spent more than three months in an Anglophone country, the rates for cooperative behavior were 48% for Dutch, and 45% for English. Actual proficiency in English had no discernible impact. So it’s not that English has any specific grammatical forms or even specific words that steer behavior in a competitive direction—it’s that English speakers tend to subscribe to more competitive norms of behavior, norms that the Dutch subjects subconsciously adopted when speaking English. The researchers may well have gotten very similar results if, instead of varying the languages, they’d exposed subjects to national symbols such as American versus Dutch flags, or pictures of bald eagles versus tulips.

So in the end, perhaps learning to speak Mandarin would make Greeks somewhat more inclined to save for a rainy day. On the other hand, they just might get the same results by making a habit of eating with chopsticks.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
  • AG

    This is quite interesting finding!

  • Derek

    Good article.

    Some interesting ideas about gender in language from Margaret à Beckett here: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/linguafranca/gender-assignment-in-french/3790838

  • http://juliesedivy.com Julie Sedivy

    Very interesting link, Derek. Thanks for that.

  • Anonymous

    This article seems silly!

    Rather than language determining behaviour, perhaps it is the behaviour of the culture that determined the language?

    Or is that offensive and not PC to suggest stereotypes and that certain groups intrinsically display certain behaviours? The article makes the claim that Germans have precise minds to cope with an irregular language but perhaps the German language was created precisely because they have precise minds and were thus able to homogenise the many disparate Germanic tribes that each, no doubt, spoke its own version of a basic tongue much like Slavs, whilst comprising disparate “tribes” ultimately shared the same roots in their languages.

  • E.M.

    Thanks for the reality check. You explained the caveats of interpreting Chen’s study very well.

  • http://juliesedivy.com Julie Sedivy

    Re: Anonymous

    “The article makes the claim that Germans have precise minds to cope with an irregular language.”

    Now that would be a silly argument, I agree. The quote by Dr. Deutscher was clearly intended as a humorous way to deflate the most simplistic hypotheses about language and culture.

    Of course, you are right that it can prove very difficult to be sure about whether language shapes culture or vice versa. If you’re interested in reading more about how this could be teased apart, you might have a look at further discussion about this paper on Language Log:
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3797

  • http://rajkashana.blogspot.com Raj

    “One of the most unkillable misconceptions is that if a language has no word for a particular concept, then its speakers must have trouble conceiving of it.”

    There has been lot of research on this subject and the conclusions certainly indicate that it is not a misconception.

    One example – people find it difficult to identify a colour if the word for that colour does not exist in their language. Can you identify which shade of green is different in this link?

    http://boingboing.net/2011/08/12/how-language-affects-color-perception.html

    Another example. certain Aboriginal communities in Australia have no words like right, left, forward, back. Instead they use directions like north, south etc. As a result, they are perfectly oriented at all times in their lives. Also, their sense of time is different – not left to right as most of us imagine but from east to west. More on this in this fascinating article.

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html

  • Dario

    Well this is the usual trash study financed by public money, the supposed fact that in italian there isn’t a word for accountability is ridicolous, please use a different online dictionary.

  • renke

    Anonymous,

    > Rather than language determining behaviour, perhaps it is the behaviour of the culture
    > that determined the language?

    Interesting question. One possibility would be a study about Switzerland: (Arguable) one common culture, but 3 (I don’t count Romansh here, too few speakers) different official languages.

    I have the feeling that French-speaking Swiss are different to German-speaking Swiss, maybe a hint that the first language is indeed shaping the way of thinking.

  • Mohan

    Bogus! Almost all of the major Indian lingos have ‘grammatical markers’ for verbs, but still Indians ‘slave’ for the future. You can glorify anything, a shortcoming in a language, in this case, with some weird theory of relativity.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Dario: There doesn’t seem to be any word that translates exactly as “accountability.” According to this article in the NYTimes, “there is no word in Italian for accountability. The closest is “responsibilità” — responsibility — which lacks the concept that actions can carry consequences.”

    If you disagree and have some other evidence, please let us know. But drop the belligerent tone.

  • renke

    Amos,

    and according to the same article there is no English equivalent for “veline” – a somehow biased example :)

    Literal translations are (nearly) impossible, the best one can hope for are accurate transliterations. As I don’t speak Italian I’m not able to decide, if responsibilità is a valid transliteration for accountability.

    The article is quite cheeky, so I would take the claim (responsibility doesn’t include consequences) with a grain of salt.

  • http://juliesedivy.com Julie Sedivy

    @ Raj: The results you point to are very interesting, and they are very much what I had in mind when I wrote that language researchers have indeed found “reliable influences of language on behavior.” But they still don’t fall into the category of argument that says that the lack of a word or linguistic tag in a language makes it impossible for speakers to think about the related concept. For example, the studies on language and color perception tend to show that people are more sensitive to small differences between colors if their particular language would use different words for these colors—so if your language distinguishes between green and blue, for example, you might have an easier time telling apart colors that lie very closely on either side of this boundary than someone else whose language uses the same color term for both green and blue. But the person who lacks different words for green vs. blue can still easily perceive larger differences between green versus blue colors, even though his language might still use the same word for both colors. An example from English: you can still tell apart two quite distinct shades of orange, even though you might use the same word for both. So, an influence of language on perception, thought or behavior? Yes. Does language determine perception, thought, behavior? Certainly not. But naturally, there’s still a good bit of research to be done before we have a really good idea of the extent and limits of the effects of language on behavior.

  • http://rajkashana.blogspot.com Raj

    @ Julie : Thanks. Yes, in case of colours one should be able to perceive larger differences. Moreover, the phenomenon of how our brain perceives colour (qualia) is a mystery in itself. I agree that language alone cannot determine behavior, several other factors would also contribute.

    It would be interesting to see what notion the Aborigines have of concepts like left, right, forward, backward. Do they always perceive them in terms of directions?

    All in all, I find the subject utterly fascinating.

  • Thurston Sexton

    I appreiciate that more scientists are taking an objective veiw on things like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Of course, their concepts were rather far fetched, but that’s not reason to throw the whole concept out.

  • Kim

    Thoroughly fascinating. Thank you for an excellent, thought-provoking piece.

  • Darrell Hoover

    I am reading “Through the Language Glass” right now. The author makes some interesting and perhaps even questionable conclusions, in my opinion, but it’s worth the read.

    How would American culture appear today if we had never adopted “marriage” (joining) but instead “matrimony” (one mother)? And (for example, in Spanish) if more people were literate in the letter of the law (ley), maybe they would be able then to read (leer) more books (libros) and find a sense of freedom (libertad). This understanding comes directly from a society based on law and military control under Roman rule (regula = kingly standard, norm; hence fair, just) and gives some insight into the connection between the Romance languages and their corresponding cultures.

  • luca

    You can check the definition of ‘responsabiltà‘ in the Devoto-Oli, one of the best Italian dictionary (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Il_Devoto%E2%80%93Oli). You’ll find that the author of the NY Times piece is wrong about the fact that ‘responsabilità‘ “lacks the concept that actions can carry consequences”.
    Said that, I think this is an interesting article.
    ciao

  • linguist

    My gosh. It’s already 2012 and someone is still making this claim about languages determinism. Seriously, Yale should offer some decent linguistics.

  • Chris Mullen

    Want to read some debunking of some bad science? Sure you do:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3756

    and

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3764

  • Richard

    Which came first the behavior or the word, I do not know. Take for example: In English the future tense is created with the word “will” which is also the word for personal power such as will power. So it pretty much implies that the future is determined by the individual. Whereas in Spanish a future action is usually accompanied with “si Dios quiere” God willing! (The future is not achieved by personal will as in English)

  • R2

    A future action is usually accompanied by “si Dios quiere” in Spanish? Really? I think you have a bit of a sampling bias there. Also, it’s not meant to be taken as if the future is not achieved by personal will, but that one will do something if some unforeseen event does not happen (like an “act of God”).

  • richard

    Another example of how language reflects character and personality is, for instance, the phrase most common used to express acknowledgment in English is: I think so! In Spanish it is: Yo creo que si. Now creo is to believe with the force GOD gives with faith; to think is to believe with the personal force of OUR thinking brain.As I see it subtle differences in what words are used in any given culture will also give insights of there personalities and character. I have noticed that cultures who subscribe and educate their children with statements of truth, such as “curiosity killed the cat” suppresses intellectual development. Curiosity is Intelligence’s main nutrient! When I taught in S. America, I constantly had to point out the difference between nosiness curious and knowledge curious to get them to do pure investigation just out of curiosity. This was a unacceptable behavior so ingrained, it affected their pursuit of knowledge.

  • E Springer

    I find the above article to be uncharitable, and not a credit to Discover magazine. A previous commenter writes “cheeky”, but I prefer to draw attention to what’s misleading about it. The author makes it sound as though some scholar actually believes that a language’s lack of a dedicated word (say, for such-and-such a silk shirt worn just so) prevents speakers from imagining such a thing.

    Refuting that hypothesis is easy; but it’s a straw man attack. The claim has never been that language draws a neat box around what people can describe and imagine, but rather that it helps to shape our cognitive habits — our perceptions, assumptions, associations, and priorities. Further, the claim (at least, among responsible scholars) has never been that the relationship is casually linear; language is dynamically shaped, in turn, by the shifting concerns and associative habits of speaker-populations. Linguistic difference, whatever the directions of causal interplay, illuminate different ways of inhabiting the world. Granted, some writers may exaggerate these differences; but a scholarly interest in this difference does not merit dismissive ridicule.

    For intriguing discussion, see this alternative discussion: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html

  • E Springer

    To follow up: I concede that Sedivy’s criticism of Chen’s research “result” is reasonable — at least if the body of Chen’s article continues in the “correlation equals causation” tone of its abstract.

    So, my objection is that that *this* fallacy (mistaking correlation for causation) is no reason to be generally suspicious of research into the complex interplay of language and cognition.

  • http://juliesedivy.com Julie Sedivy

    @ E Springer: You’re absolutely right that no serious scholar today would propose that a language’s lack of a word prevents speakers from imagining the related concept. The article doesn’t attribute this particular belief to Chen, though perhaps I should have been clearer on this point.

    However, the “straw man” position has in the past been taken as a serious scientific hypothesis. More to the point, it persists today in people’s everyday ideas about language, and also, very commonly in the media. The goal of the article was not to specifically provide a review of Chen’s findings, but to put these findings into a broader context for the general reader. (As noted in previous comments, more detailed scholarly remarks on the paper can be found in the various discussions on Language Log). And that broader context, in my opinion, leads to the conclusion that it would be surprising if in fact grammatical differences were at the heart of the very large behavioral differences that Chen reports.

  • http://www.traducciones-montevideo.com Nelida K.

    Chen’s findings seem to me, to put it mildly, a bit slanted. And more than a bit off the mark. To imply that verb conjugation (that’s what time-markers are, after all) is related to the way that a human group views its surrounding world, seems a bit farfetched and reaching for conclusions via generalization.

    For instance, in Spanish the simple future is – in its peninsular variety – indeed expressed through an ending marker: yo como, I eat; yo comeré, I will/shall eat. But in the South Cone (more precisely River Plate) variety, it’s commonly expressed as: “voy a comer”. To say “comeré” in my part of the Continent, sounds affected and foreign. Speak like that and probably you’ll get asked where you are from (and maybe elicit a smile or two). So, the future is expressed via a construction “voy (ir=go in the PRESENT tense) +a + infinitive). Where is the ending-marker for the future here, pray? So here we have an instance that cancels that conclusion. Also, what about markers indicating past? Why are only the markers for future indicative of a people’s character?

    As to the “accountability” notion, which has been commented for Italy. Spanish doesn’t have an exact word for this notion either, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’ have a translation for it that expresses the notion. Also in Spanish we have the word “responsabilidad”, which has been argued as not being the same as “accountability”. Not in and by itself, it isn’t; but the expression “responder ante” pretty much expresses the meaning: “Pedro es el responsable del Departamento de Policía y responde ante el Ministro del Interior”. There: Pedro is the responsible party for the Police Department and accountable to, or before, the Minister of the Interior”. You may even use other words for it: “debe dar cuenta de sus actos” is to be accountable for your actions. So you see, maybe you use more words (romance languages are wordier than English, a known fact) but the notions are there.

    Just wanted to contribute my two cents on two points which were widely and more knowingly discussed by other readers.

  • rebecca dremann

    Que sera, sera ~ whatever will be, will be…

  • Pippa

    Having worked as a psychiatrist and moved in different cultures I would suggest that language reflects culture and reinforces it, and the corollary is true. Complicating the matter, language and cultures constantly change. When I go ‘home’ to my parents’ now I stick out because my culture, language and accent are out of date. Those of my family have evolved over the two decades that I have been away, the biggest changes being seen in my siblings and less being seen in my parents, who tend to have friends of their own age, ie in their 80′s. So it seems most likely that the two are intertwined and interdependent; each influences the other. Dichotomies make for stimulating debate but rarely reflect reality in any aspect of human thought and behaviour.

  • http://rajkashana.blogspot.com Raj
  • Pingback: Is Your Language Making You Fat? | Aesthetics of Touch

  • Pingback: The Causes of Poverty (65): Grammar? | P.a.p.-Blog, Human Rights Etc.

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