Keith Chen: The Benefits of Futureless Languages

In February 2013, media outlets from America’s Wall Street Journal to the U.K.’s BBC were abuzz about bold observations being made by a behavioral economist at Yale University. Keith Chen was claiming that a soon-to-be-published study would show how rates of obesity, smoking, drinking, debt and poor pension planning correlate directly to the types of languages spoken around the world. In particular, the associate professor of economics insisted, the manner in which a mother tongue marks the timing of events can have a huge impact on the economic behavior of its speakers.

Of course, the concept of “linguistic relativity” is nothing new. For nearly 200 years, theories have been put forth regarding how the structure of a language affects a person’s world view and, in turn, his or her cognitive processes. What made Chen’s position so newsworthy was the massive amount of hard data at his disposal and the serious mathematical analysis he applied to a variety of lifestyle indicators, particularly in the area of personal savings.

Weak vs. Strong

The basic purpose of Chen’s research was to test a linguistic-savings hypothesis: “that being required to speak in a distinct way about future events leads speakers to take fewer future-oriented actions…. Put another way, I ask whether a habit of speech, which disassociates the future from the present, can cause people to devalue future rewards.”

The bulk of Chen’s research focused on what linguists call “future tense reference” or FTR. He distinguished between two broad categories, strong FTR languages such as English, Greek, Italian and Russian that “require future events to be grammatically marked when making predictions,” and weak FTR languages like Chinese, Finnish, German and Japanese that do not. For example, a New Yorker might say “It will rain tomorrow,” using the future marker “will,” while a citizen of Berlin would comment “Morgen regnet es,” which directly translates to “It rains tomorrow.”

In cross-country analyses, Chen first identified a strong correlation between weak FTR languages and future-oriented behavior. He then switched to within-country regressions, comparing individuals with identical income, education, family structure and countries of birth, but who spoke different languages. Again, speakers of weak FTR languages appeared to be more future-oriented in terms of behaviors both monetary and non-monetary in nature.

Specifically, Chen’s report, which was subsequently published in the April issue of American Economic Review, showed that weak FTR speakers were “31% more likely to have saved in any given year, have accumulated 39% more wealth by retirement, are 24% less likely to smoke, are 29% more likely to be physically active, and are 13% less likely to be medically obese.”

Why might that be? Chen believes that speakers of weak FTR languages view the future as part of the present, not as a time separated and potentially far away. Just consider the difference between the phrases “I save money” and “I’m going to save money” or “I don’t smoke” and “I won’t smoke.” The present tense describes a behavior, while the future presents an intention.

Exaggerated Claims?

The media had a field day with Chen’s statistics, publishing headlines like “Why Greeks Haven’t Saved for a Rainy Day” and “Why Speaking English Can Make You Poor When You Retire.” Most reporters managed to get Chen’s main premise correct: “marking the future tense differently makes the future seem further away, and therefore you are less likely to plan for the future.” However, in their haste to reduce science to sound bites, some went overboard, such as author David Berreby (Us and Them: The Science of Identity) who blogged that the research showed “certain languages are inherently healthier to speak than others.”

The loose journalism attracted a raft of critics from the linguistics community, including John McWhorter of Columbia University. He told the BBC, “The extent to which the language shapes the thought is tiny. We’re talking about milliseconds of reaction…. None of it has ever been proven to have anything to do with how people see the world or experience life. It’s a tempting idea that simply doesn’t make any sense.”

Writing in Language Log, professor of linguistics Mark Zimmerman of the University of Pennsylvania questioned the reliability of Chen’s calculations, while Geoff Pullum, a professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, wrote, “Chen’s thesis is highly brittle and susceptible to counter-exemplification.” Pullum suggested that Chen’s classification of English and Russian as strong FTR languages was mistaken; he also cited a counter example regarding the influence of a weak FTR language, one spoken by the Pirahã Indians of Brazil, indicating that “contrary to Chen’s prediction, the Pirahã are unconcerned with planning for the future, to a quite extreme degree.”

More to Come

At present, economists seem to be more accepting of Keith Chen’s conclusions. His paper was selected as the Editor’s Choice for Science Magazine (Vol. 339) in the spring of 2013. He has been invited to give TED and TEDx presentations to standing-room-only audiences, most recently at Marist College in New York. And his work continues to gain traction in the blogosphere, where it has rekindled interest in the correlation between language, thought and action.

Taking special interest in Chen’s work is Östen Dahl, a Swedish linguist and professor best known for pioneering a marker-based approach to tense and aspect in linguistic typology. Chen cited Dahl’s studies into “futureless languages” frequently in his research and, based upon the Yale professor’s methodology, Dahl has “tried looking at things from another angle.”

Dahl has subsequently written, “It is not only the case that there are many different linguistic features that can predict economic behavior, but Chen’s division of languages into ‘strong and weak FTR’ ones also predicts various other pieces of behavior (such as) intentional homicide rates and belief in God.”

Meanwhile, Professor Sean Roberts of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics has done some further analysis on his own and told Chen that “evidence here supports a strong statistical link between future tense marking and the propensity to save money.” He has suggested that additional research, including lab experiments, be conducted to demonstrate “a causal link between the two variables…that the future tense variable really does reflect how people think about time.”

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