Keith Chen has proposed that the language we speak can affect our future-oriented behaviors. Some languages, like English, require that speakers grammatically mark future events, thus distinguishing them from present events. For example, we would have to say, “today it is raining,” and “tomorrow it will rain.” Other languages make the grammatical distinction between present and future either optional or nonexistent. In German, for example, the equivalent of our phrase “tomorrow it will rain” is “Morgen regnet es” (it rains tomorrow). Whether referring to rain in the moment or in the future, Germans need not modify the tense of the verb. Chen describes languages like English as strong-FTR (future-time reference), and languages like German as weak-FTR.
Undoubtedly, languages vary in many ways on how they talk about the future – the distinction strong- versus weak-FTR might be an oversimplification in a way, but distinguishing the two types based on whether grammatically marking the future is necessary makes the binary split possible. After just reading about the two different language types, my intuition was that the concept of the future would be more salient for speakers of languages like English who are forced by their language to mark it grammatically. In this case, we might expect speakers of these languages to demonstrate more future-oriented behaviors. This seems to be the trend in general with language on thought effects – when speakers of a language must attend to a feature of the world to encode it in their language, their behavior often reflects that heightened attention.
However, this isn’t what Chen found. He found that speakers of weak-FTR languages, those whose languages don’t require that they grammatically distinguish the present from the future, save more, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese. In other words, it sounds like treating the present and future the same grammatically is connected to better forward-looking behaviors. He found this effect at the level of individual households and on the more macro level of countries’ saving rates as a whole. He was even able to identify 7 countries in which a large population speaks a weak-FTR language and another large portion speaks a strong-FTR language. When comparing families who spoke each type of language (and controlling for potentially every variable possible), he found that those families who spoke the weak-FTR language showed significantly more future-oriented behaviors than those who spoke strong-FTR behaviors.
The fact that the reverse finding (strong-FTR speakers exhibit more future-oriented behaviors) could have easily been explained (as a result of heightened attention to the future) is only a little troubling to me. The thoroughness of Chen’s study, evident in the number of languages, survey measures, and controlled variables adds a lot to its credibility. Because grammatical structures like future marking take many generations to evolve, it’s unlikely that cultures who focus more on saving would have adapted their language to reflect that value. Plus, if they had done that, it would be more likely for them to have added a grammatical distinction between the present and future, as a reflection of the importance they attribute to the future.
But as I was talking it over with a friend, I came up with another thought. Because many features of language do reflect cultural values, is it possible that cultures that strive to be economical, or in other words, to waste nothing, do so both in their language and in their economic practices? For example, Mandarin is a weak-FTR language. I know it also does not contain articles and has a much more straightforward counting system than English does. To me, these features could all be described as “economical.” Might such language features correlate with savings? Maybe it could even account for why speakers of those languages are less obese and smoke less – excess food and cigarettes are seen as just that – excesses that detract from economical practices. I’m skeptical that this could be an explaining factor also because Chen found that almost no other language features could predict the future-oriented effects as well as FTR, but I suppose it’s possible that FTR is one of the most consistent and reliable measures of whether a language tends to be economical.
If this finding is reflective of a true cognitive difference resulting from a grammatical feature of language, it’s a pretty important one. Just in case, I think I stop using the future tense.