How language shapes your life

Could the language you speak affect the amount you smoke? Or how much you save for your pension?
09 May 2017

Interview with 

Keith Chen, UCLA Anderson


Can language impact how much money you save, or even whether you smoke? Keith Chen from UCLA Anderson found that languages that have a future tense make the speaker think of the present and the future as two separate events in life. He spoke to Georgia Mills about how a future tense influences your behaviour...

Keith - This is very widespread. So, for example, what’s interesting is that even though English is a germanic language, it’s actually an outlier amongst germanic languages on this dimension of needing to grammatically indicate that you’re speaking about a future tense or about a future event. For example it’s very, very natural to say - “morgen regnet es”-  it “rain tomorrow” or “tomorrow it rain”. Whereas if in English you have to say “it will rain tomorrow” or “it’s going to rain tomorrow”. You basically have to indicate that this is going to happen in the future.

Georgia - Does this difference in the way the languages are built affect how we think?

Keith - Yeah. So there’s a lot of evidence in both cognitive linguistics and in psychology that when you languages force you to pay attention to the fact that a future is different than the present, that that subtly makes the future feel a little bit further away than if your language didn’t - like German. Where I’m most interested in this effect is the fact that languages that grammatically differentiate between the future and the present make the future and the present feel ever so slightly more psychologically distant from each other. Or, another way of putting that is that it makes your future self feel slightly further away than your current concerns. What I was interested in was whether or not that makes it harder for you to engage in either savings behaviour, or healthy exercise and savings behaviours, like exercising now so that you’ll be healthier in the future. Or not smoking now so that you’ll be healthier in the future. Or not engaging in unsafe sex so that you’ll be healthier in the future.

Georgia - So if we have a future tense your, say, future me “I will be going to the gym”. The fact that I’m changing the way I talk is making me separate the future from the present to a greater degree than if I didn’t have this future tense - is that right?

Keith - Exactly, exactly.

Georgia - How did you test this then?

Keith -  What I do is I gather these very, very large datasets that are collected from all around the world where some families speak a language that equate the future and the present, while other families speak languages that make no grammatical distinction between the present and the future. Then what I’m interested in is whether those families, after controlling for a whole bunch of features of the family, whether those families appear to save more, whether those families appear to smoke less. Whether they exercise more and in the long run whether they’re in better health.

What’s amazing is because of these large datasets we’re actually able to control for a tremendous amount. So we’re able to say “let’s find two families both of which live in Brussels, on the same block, and attend the same church. Both of whom have exactly the same level of education and the exact same level of income, but one family speaks Flemish while the other speaks French”. What we find is that between those two families, the family whose language does not break apart the future and the present, saves 30% more each year and, as a result, retires with 25% more in total retirement savings.

In addition to that in any given year they're 20-24% less likely to report smoking - the  adults in the family. They’re 13-17% less likely to be medically obese at the time of retirement. And, amazingly in surveys, when asked the last time you had sex with someone who was not your partner, did you use a condom? They’re 21% more likely to say yes.

Georgia - So this is quite some numbers here!

Keith - Yeah. These are amazingly large effects.

Georgia - In your study you’ve controlled for lots of things like wealth and location. But language, I suppose, comes with a lot of cultural baggage. Someone who speaks French is likely to come from a different culture than somebody who speaks Flemish, so have you been able to control for that?

Keith - Absolutely. That’s the number one confound here is that you worry, as you say, that language carries with it, or is highly correlated, with a lot of different cultural values. One thing that makes us confident that while cultural effects are there, they are not what are causing these results, is that that there are nine countries around the world where native speakers speak both future and futureless languages and in every single one of those countries, the speakers whose language break the future and the present from each other save less, smoke more, are more obese, and tend to retire with less in savings. So if it’s a cultural feature, for some reason all around the world it seems to tie extremely tightly to this grammatical dimension.

Georgia - Does this mean that we see in countries like Germany that, as a whole, the country’s just doing a little bit better because everyone’s being a bit wiser?

Keith - This actually has national effects. When you look at the OECD, which is association of already developed, rich, democratic countries, there’s a good amount of variation. You’ll be upset to know that both the United States and the United Kingdom, because they speak English, and we’re the second and the third worst countries in the OECD in terms of how much we save every year. We’re on an average like 10-15% lower in our national savings rates than Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, Sweden, Estonia. We save less than all of these countries. There’s only one country that’s worse than the United States or the United Kingdom and its language also breaks the present from the future, and that’s Greece.

Georgia - Ooops! So the next question is: is there anyway as English speakers we can adopt this way of thinking and get the benefits of a future tenseless language?

Keith - A common feature of self-help advice in English is to make lists, and goals, and plans that you want to achieve, and to write those things in the present tense without grammatically separating them from your current self.

Georgia - From a personal point of view - say I want to go to the gym more, I should write a list saying “Georgia go to gym,” instead of “Georgia will go to the gym.”

Keith - Absolutely! I think your listeners should definitely try this, and in many studies it’s been shown to help. For example, one simple thing would be instead of saying something like “I will go to the gym.” You can just say “this week I go to the gym,” or “tomorrow I go to the gym.” You could try and make it seem much more of a concrete plan and literally express it in the present tense. Maybe even more powerfully you could try and frame it as an identity. You can say “this week I’m an exercise maniac” or “this week I’m a gym rat.”


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