How do we learn to speak money?

Learning about finances, says John Lanchester, author of How to Speak Money, is a bit like learning Chinese – ‘figuring out the meaning, word-by-word’. This, he says, is how he learned to ‘speak money’.

Many of the same theories that have been used to explain language acquisition – including behaviourism and cognitivism – Adrian Furnham reports have been used in conjunction with learning about money.

Just as our mother tongue is learned primarily in the home, supplemented by formal lessons at school, many of our ideas about money are formed in our early years in the family.

Summarising studies of ‘money troubled’ adults, Furnham states that many of their troubles originate in ‘lessons’ learned as a child, with the family as the primary socialisation unit. ‘Teaching economic literacy, good money management and sensible saving and spending should be a parental priority, Furnham points out, referring to Charles Collier’s notion of ‘financial parenting’ in the book Wealth in Families.

‘Financial parenting’, defined as ‘financial education to preserve family wealth’ (notably, Collier was writing mainly for what he calls ‘families of wealth’) consists of several principles:

  • setting a good example,
  • providing consistent guidance,
  • allowing children to make mistakes, and
  • using mentors.

These recommendations reinforce the importance of Bordieu’s four forms of ‘capital’– not only should children ideally be given some access to economic capital in order to experiment, but they also require cultural and social capital in the forms of guidance and mentors, and symbolic capital in the form of good examples they can emulate.

Recognising the importance of these forms of capital helps us to understand inherited inequality as more than just about money in terms of figures, as well as how the way we speak about money and the financial behaviours and attitudes we exhibit in the home can affect our children.

Yet, Lanchester queries, if the language of money is so useful, ‘how come it seems offputtingly difficult, so closed and excluding? How come we don’t learn it automatically as we grow up, the way we learn the language that we actually speak?’ In the next post, we’ll answer Lanchester’s question.

07ChildrenWhat kind of money talk did you hear growing up?

This post is the seventh of a 10 part series over 10 days introducing Enrichmentality.

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