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Saving for a rainy day: Keith Chen on language that forecasts weather — and behavior

Posted by: TED Guest Author

Keith-ChenBy Keith Chen

How are China, Estonia and Germany different from India, Greece and the UK? To an economist, one answer is obvious: savings rates. Germans save 10 percentage points more than the British do (as a fraction of GDP), while Estonians and Chinese save a whopping 20 percentage points more than Greeks and Indians. Economists think a lot about what drives people to save, but many of these international differences remain unexplained. In a recent paper of mine, I find that these countries differ not only in how much their residents save for the future, but also how their native speakers talk about the future.

Keith Chen: Could your language affect your ability to save money?Keith Chen: Could your language affect your ability to save money?

In late 2011, an idea struck me while reading several papers in psychology that link a person’s language with differences in how they think about space, color, and movement. As a behavioral economist, I am interested in understanding how people make decisions. Could a person’s language subtly affect his or her everyday decisions? In particular, could the way a person’s language marks the future affect their propensity to save for the future?

In a nutshell, this is precisely what I found. After scouring many datasets with millions of records on individual household savings behavior—along with a number of peculiar health performance metrics like grip strength and walking speed—I find that languages that oblige speakers to grammatically separate the future from the present lead them to invest less in the future. Speakers of such languages save less, retire with less wealth, smoke more, practice more unsafe sex and are more obese. Surprisingly, this effect persists even after controlling for a speaker’s education, income, family structure and religion.

Back when my first paper on this topic circulated, many linguists were appropriately skeptical of the work. Their concerns are concisely explained in two well-thought out posts (here and here) by the linguists Mark Liberman and Goeffrey Pullum on the blog they founded, Language Log. Mark and Geoffrey also invited me to write a guest post explaining the work. In that post, I discuss which of their possible concerns are unlikely given the patterns I find across the world in people’s savings and health behaviors, and also try to clarify which of their concerns I was not yet able to address.

This exchange prompted a broad set of discussions as to what different types of data, analyses and experiments could, in principle, answer the questions raised by the patterns I find. Cross-disciplinary discussions took place in a subsequent post by Julie Sedivy and followup posts by Mark Liberman, and also at the Linguistic Data Consortium’s 20th Anniversary Workshop. Several new avenues of investigation and work came out of these interactions, three of which are now ongoing projects.

One new idea that I’ve begun to explore entails measuring a language’s time reference by scraping the web—to search for natural patterns in language—in addition to using linguistic classifications. This led me to search the web for the simplest form of writing about the future I could find: weather forecasts. Why weather forecasts? Well, forecasts rarely talk about the past, so they’re a natural place to look for speech about the future. Weather forecasters also generally communicate in natural, straightforward language, and often convey similar content across different settings. Can patterns in weather forecasts measure how languages structure the future, and can these differences predict how people save for the future? Amazingly, they do.

A team of linguistics and economics students assisted with this analysis, and managed to scrape the web for weather forecasts in 39 languages from around the world. The figure below summarizes what we found: wide variation in how often, when talking about future weather, forecasts in a particular language grammatically mark the future as something distinct from the present. In English, for example, this comes down to the relative frequency of sentences like:

Rain is likely this weekend.                (present tense “is”)

It will likely rain this weekend.          (future tense “will rain”)

What’s surprising is that when I repeat the statistical analysis I did in the paper, I find an incredibly strong relationship between how forecasters talk about weather and how much people choose to save. Essentially, a 20 percentage point increase in the frequency of future tenses results in 1% less of GDP saved. This finding holds even after taking into account a country’s level of development, rate of growth, demographics, social security protections and major religions.

What does this mean? I don’t believe it demonstrates extreme weather forecaster persuasion. Rather, I think it shows that many different ways of measuring how languages mark time share a strong and striking relationship with how speakers of those languages save. In short, I believe more than ever that the data suggests a strong and robust relationship between linguistic and economic data, a relationship that leaves us at an exciting crossroads: one where economists have a tremendous amount to learn from linguists.

The figure below measures the percent of time weather forecasts use future vs. present tenses (download a larger version as a PDF). See the paper here for details.

Graph of Future Tense Use

Comments (34)

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  • Ismael Arinas Pellón commented on Feb 23 2013

    Although I haven’t had the chance yet to read your papers, the graph presents Catalan and Basque as two future-intensive languages. Culturally, and judging from how the economies of these two regions in Spain fared until 2000, Catalan and Basque people were probably the ones saving the most in Spain. But even in Spain, people from Castille or Galicia were more into saving than people from Andalucia. I would have to find statistics for years and Spanish regions and different saving patterns would emerge. And even saving trends have changed in comparison with the 1960s. Let’s suppose that your hypothesis is true. In the case of differences across Spanish regions, we would find regional differences in the frequency of the future correlating to saving behaviour. This could be extended to explain the differences, for example, among British ex-colonies. But what about Catalonia and the Basque provinces where people have been culturally more austere and in your data appear as high-future users for their weather forecasts? What about bilingual or multilingual populations using languages with different future tense patterns? What about the U.S. where people are more obese on average than countries where saving is higher? I’ll read (in the near future) your papers to see if some more questions arise.

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  • john jerry commented on Feb 22 2013

    I have read an artical also about forecasts weather,it state ancient animal urine can teach you about climate change:http://jerryjohy.blogspot.com/2013/02/ancient-animal-urine-teach-you-about.html

  • James Gaffney commented on Feb 20 2013

    Hi Keith, fascinating study.

    On what basis did you distinguish European Portuguese as being a futured language, while Brazilian Portuguese being a non-futured language?

    I’m currently studying beginners Brazilian Portuguese – I’d like to be able to tell my teacher that I shouldn’t have to memorise the table of future verb conjugations :)

    • Carlos Costa commented on Feb 20 2013

      Hi James,

      I am a Brazilian native speaker and as I interpreted the article and the date I understood that he haven´t access to Brazilian portuguese data.

      So it counts 0%. I dont know why it appears in the graph, anyway.

      The portuguese grammar is the very same in any portuguese speaking country.

      But in Brazil we speak several non-official dialects in several regions, the most don´t agree to be dialects but for me they are.

      If you plan to travel to Brazil try to learn the idioms from the region you go but dont forget to learn the official portuguese grammar.

      If you come to Minas Gerais I may help you to understande some montanhês.

      Divirta-se!

      • James Gaffney commented on Feb 20 2013

        Obrigado pela sua reposta Carlos! Eu morrou em Minas também, é um mundo pequeno! Tudo jóia?

        Yes, it would make sense that the author didn’t have access to Brazilian Portuguese data, which explains why it has 0%. I got a bit confused because in the introduction of the shorter blog post about this topic, Chinese is described as a “futureless language.” Seeing as both it and Brazilian Portuguese had 0% in the graph, I thought a presumption was being made that it lacked a future verb tense. As you, and my Portuguese teacher, point out, it doesn’t lack one at all.

    • Keith Chen commented on Feb 20 2013

      Hey James,

      What’s interesting is that in Brazilian weather forecasts, you’ll often see sentences with little to no grammatical future markers, like:

      “Neste sábado, o sol aparece entre muitas nuvens no leste de Sa
      nta Catarina e do Paraná, mas só há condições de chuva pela manhã.”

      You almost never see anything like this in European Portuguese weather reports.

      • James Gaffney commented on Feb 20 2013

        Thanks Keith. Yes, I was wondering if there was a difference between how the weather forecasts in Brazil are presented with how it’s done in Portugal. Thanks for the clarification!

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  • Khadijah Latiff commented on Feb 19 2013

    I was drawn to this article, but I had immediate doubts.. I grew up in Malaysia where the population demographics are: Malay, Chinese, Indian, others. Each ethnicity retain their original languages. The most obvious problem in the country is the economic gap and behavior in savings between Malays, Chinese and Indian. The Chinese, despite being minority, hold the most wealth. Malay language is also a non-futured language. There is no distinction between past/present/future. I’m not sure about Tamil language, as I’m not familiar with it. Interesting theory, but totally not applicable when comparing between non-futured languages

  • Oli Smith commented on Feb 19 2013

    Fascinating, but this – “I find that languages that oblige speakers to grammatically separate the future from the present lead them to invest less in the future.”

    Then this, “Essentially, a 20 percentage point increase in the frequency of future tenses results in 1% more of GDP saved.”

    Am I just being incredibly slow at this ungodly time of the morning, or do these sentences contradict each other?

    • Keith Chen commented on Feb 20 2013

      You are completely right Oli, thanks for catching the mistake in reporting about the work (“more” should have read “less”).

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