The Null Device

The future tense considered harmful?

A behavioural economist from Yale has posited the theory that how one's primary language handles the future tense influences the amount of planning one does for the future, with one consequence being that English speakers save less for their old age than speakers of languages such as Mandarin and Yoruba, which lack a separate future tense and instead treat the future as part of the present. Professor Keith Chen's theory is that, in doing so, such languages encourage and entrench habits of thought more conducive to mindfulness of one's future than languages where the future is hived off into a separate grammatical tense:
Prof Chen divides the world's languages into two groups, depending on how they treat the concept of time. Strong future-time reference languages (strong FTR) require their speakers to use a different tense when speaking of the future. Weak future-time reference (weak FTR) languages do not.
"The act of savings is fundamentally about understanding that your future self - the person you're saving for - is in some sense equivalent to your present self," Prof Chen told the BBC's Business Daily. "If your language separates the future and the present in its grammar that seems to lead you to slightly disassociate the future from the present every time you speak.
The effect is not limited to exotic non-European languages; similar differences are present in European languages to an extent (for example, one often uses the present tense in German to refer to events in the future, which is not the case in English, French or Italian; whether this has any causal relationship with the higher rate of personal saving in Germany remains to be determined).

Professor Chen's paper, The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets, is (here), in PDF format.

If this effect holds true, all may not be lost; one could consciously intervene in English to an extent without breaking too much, by forcing oneself to say things like “I'm going to the seminar” rather than “I will go to the seminar”. Further flattenings-out of the future tense, however, get more awkward; saying, at age 29, “I'm retiring to the south of France” could raise a few eyebrows.

There are 2 comments on "The future tense considered harmful?":

Posted by: Greg Sun Feb 24 11:52:35 2013

I'd be skeptical about this. He's talking about delayed gratification aka future discounting, and there's a massive body of research into it. It varies a lot within cultures as well as between and there are many known factors that affect it (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delayed_gratification#Factors_affecting_one.E2.80.99s_ability_to_delay_gratification), and it may be inherited genetically. Asserting that the language one speaks goes against existing research, is a last gasp of Sapir-Whorf, and could be getting causation round the wrong way.

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org/acb/ Thu Feb 28 16:03:25 2013

And here's more criticism of the hypothesis: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3756 http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3764

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