5 examples of how the languages we speak can affect the way we think


Economist Keith Chen starts the talk with an observation: to say, “This is my uncle,” in Chinese, you have no choice but to encode more information about said uncle. The language requires that you denote the side the uncle is on, whether he’s related by marriage or birth and, if it’s your father’s brother, whether he’s older or younger.“All of this information is obligatory. Chinese doesn’t let me ignore it,” says Chen. “In fact, if I want to speak correctly, Chinese forces me to constantly think about it.”

This got Chen wondering: Is there a connection between language and how we think and behave? In particular, Chen wanted to know: does our language affect our economic decisions?

Chen designed a study — which he describes in detail in this blog post— to look at how language might affect individual’s ability to save for the future. According to his results, it does — big time.

While “futured languages,” like English, distinguish between the past, present and future, “futureless languages,” like Chinese, use the same phrasing to describe the events of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Using vast inventories of data and meticulous analysis, Chen found that huge economic differences accompany this linguistic discrepancy. Futureless language speakers are 30 percent more likely to report having saved in any given year than futured language speakers. (This amounts to 25 percent more savings by retirement, if income is held constant.) Chen’s explanation: When we speak about the future as more distinct from the present, it feels more distant — and we’re less motivated to save money now in favor of monetary comfort years down the line.

But that’s only the beginning. There’s a wide field of research on the link between language and both psychology and behavior. Here, a few fascinating examples:

  1. Navigation and Pormpuraawans
    In Pormpuraaw, an Australian Aboriginal community, you wouldn’t refer to an object as on your “left” or “right,” but rather as “northeast” or “southwest,” writes Stanford psychology professor Lera Boroditsky (and an expert in linguistic-cultural connections) in the Wall Street Journal. About a third of the world’s languages discuss space in these kinds of absolute terms rather than the relative ones we use in English, according to Boroditsky. “As a result of this constant linguistic training,” she writes, “speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes.” On a research trip to Australia, Boroditsky and her colleague found that Pormpuraawans, who speak Kuuk Thaayorre, not only knew instinctively in which direction they were facing, but also always arranged pictures in a temporal progression from east to west.
  2. Blame and English Speakers
    In the same article, Boroditsky notes that in English, we’ll often say that someone broke a vase even if it was an accident, but Spanish and Japanese speakers tend to say that the vase broke itself. Boroditsky describes a study by her student Caitlin Fausey in which English speakers were much more likely to remember who accidentally popped balloons, broke eggs, or spilled drinks in a video than Spanish or Japanese speakers. (Guilt alert!) Not only that, but there’s a correlation between a focus on agents in English and our criminal-justice bent toward punishing transgressors rather than restituting victims, Boroditsky argues.
  3. Color among Zuñi and Russian Speakers
    Our ability to distinguish between colors follows the terms in which we describe them, as Chen notes in the academic paper in which he presents his research (forthcoming in the American Economic Review; PDF here). A 1954 study found that Zuñi speakers, who don’t differentiate between orange and yellow, have trouble telling them apart. Russian speakers, on the other hand, have separate words for light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy). According to a 2007 study, they’re better than English speakers at picking out blues close to the goluboy/siniy threshold.
  4. Gender in Finnish and Hebrew
    In Hebrew, gender markers are all over the place, whereas Finnish doesn’t mark gender at all, Boroditsky writes in Scientific American (PDF). A study done in the 1980s found that, yup, thought follows suit: kids who spoke Hebrew knew their own genders a year earlier than those who grew up speaking Finnish. (Speakers of English, in which gender referents fall in the middle, were in between on that timeline, too.)

Why we should spend more on science


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The UK government roughly spent around £695 billion on our behalf last year; let me repeat that nearly £695 billion. When we see figures like this on the news and see that this costs X amount of money and that costs Y amount of money, I don’t know how to process that, is it a lot in the grand scheme of things, I frankly do not know. However we can divide it to pounds per person per year, then the numbers start to make more sense. So since there are about 63 million people in the UK, we do some maths and come to the figure £11,000 per person per year, which is spent on our behalf by the government for everything the government does.


So the image above gives us a rough indication of how important we consider some of these costs to be; and thankfully our biggest spend is quite sensible in being benefits and pensions, and then it is healthcare and education and so on, and it seems fairly straightforward, I mean I’m relatively happy with that being spent on my behalf, but then I look at the research and development expenditure, and the government spends around £160 per person per year, which is less that 1.5% of total spending, but again it seems a small amount, but is it really a small amount I don’t know, so let us look at the problems that we are trying to solve with this £160 per person per year to see if we are indeed spending enough.  

About a third of us die from cancer every year, so it would be safe to assume that we are spending good money on trying to find a cure, or even better treatments, we don’t even spend a fiver on it, okay so how about stroke, surely we spend some decent amount of money on something that kills 10% of us, 28p is all that is spent per person per year in trying to fight it better, and it’s that same with heart disease, something which kills 15% of us every year, we spend just over a quid. So to summarise we spend about six quid in trying to find better treatments and cures for something that kills over half of us. Some may be quick to point out however that a lot of medical research is in fact charity funded, but that only accounts for half of funding, which seems a huge amount and is so, but then we come to figure of £12 per person per year being spent on medical research on our behalf. I don’t know about you, but I would like more to be spent on finding a cure of something which will probably kill me. 


Okay so let’s talk about energy, probably one of the most important aspects of our lives, and we are in need of newer sources now more than ever. We spend about £2200 per capita in fuelling everything, including homes, cars and buildings. So especially with the need of newer sources of energy, how much do we spend on research and development? A tenner, now it makes sense to invest in finding a solution to the problem we have, we hear it in the news and by the government all the time, oil prices are now so high it is ridiculous, but we spend a tenner per person per year to find new ways to source our energy.

Let’s look at nuclear fusion as a possible option, we spend a lousy 0.05% of our spend on energy, to research nuclear fusion. This is a power source with near-infinite, pollution free energy and it is possible as shown by the JET experiment in Oxfordshire; which generated 16MW of power from fusion. The fact of the matter is that we are not far away from practical nuclear fusion for energy, but if our budget for it remains less than quid per person per year we will never get there.

Instead of looking at it a number of years away, it makes more sense to look at how much it will cost per person per years, the more we invest the sooner we get there. Although we cannot simply do 100 experiments and then bam, we have affordable fusion energy. However we have projects in fusion research, one of them being a collaborative experimental reactor called ITER, which has a budget of roughly £13 billion, after this another reactor will be built DEMO, which plans on using the technology from ITER to generate electricity, alongside that we have to test materials that can be used within the reactors. If all goes to plan we can have a nuclear fusion plant working after investing £60 billion.

That’s a lot of money, is it not? So how about we give it the per person treatment, as this will be a collaborative project, so not just the UK but nearly all of the high-income countries, which represents nearly half of the world’s population, but being reasonable and allowing the more wealthier countries to pay for it, there is still 1.1 billion people, that’s about a one off payment of £50 per person for nuclear fusion. Also we wouldn’t have to pay it all at once, because it takes time to train scientists, build labs and so on, so we can all pay our £50 bit by bit over a number of years. I’m a student and I’m more than happy to give £50 quid, if it means we can find a new energy source for ourselves.

I can go on with the examples and talk about how little we spend on science research, despite the rewards being great. With us spending so much on other insignificant things, surely we can spend that little bit more, even if we double our spending, the amount will still be remarkably small but we can reach our goals in half the time.

There was a time not too long ago, where we focused a lot more on science, and in that age came all the things we take for granted now such as the internet, many of the consumer goods we have now, and many military advancements. So it makes sense to spend just that little bit more on science. Just compare what we spend on science and the look at what we spend on other things, and also look at how much we can make back from science as well, and then ask yourself can we afford not to?

A lot of the arguments found here have been argued by Andrew Steele on TED (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FxklEl7dXs), and some of the data used can be found on Scienceogram.org. In terms of the data used, again thank scienceogram, you can find all the data here and a lot more at: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AhGUIL_9zcIIdGdTUktxaS1qc1YxNUNZbVN3MFhjRUE#gid=5

In terms of getting involved, I would recommend checking out the science is vital website, where they have a petition to ask for an increase in spending, you can find them here, http://scienceisvital.org.uk/2013/03/21/petition-increase-governmental-spend-on-rd-to-0-8-gdp/

Also check out Campaign for Science and engineering, they aim to raise the political profile of science and engineering by lobbying and other means, which helps funding. You can find them here http://sciencecampaign.org.uk/

But most importantly, spread the word, let your friends and family know, make it a point to your local MP that you want more spending on science, share this blog or the thousands of others that advocate the same, and make sure others are aware of the problems that we currently have.