Friday, 1 March 2013

We Are Wot We Speak

Keeping on the language discussions .... it appears that the language you speak, and how well you speak it are indicators of your likelihood to save, exercise or even smoke.

Doesn't sound plausible does it? But according to Yale University behavioural economist, Keith Chen languages can be split into two groups: strong and weak Future-Time Reference (FTR) languages. Examples given in each group are:

Strong FTR languages: Chaha, English, French, Fula, Gamo, Hausa, Igbo, Italian, Moore, Russian, Tigrinya, and Tamil.
Weak FTR languages: Amharic, Dyula, Estonian, German, Malay, Mandarin, Oromo, Sidamo, and Yoruba.

Being a member of a strong FTR language means that you are more like to differentiate or disassociate between the present and the future e.g. 'I will go, am going, or have to go to the pub', whereas a weaker FTR may say 'I go pub' or 'morgen regnet es' - it rains tomorrow.

So? Well apparently our old friend statistics show that speakers of languages which only use the present tense when dealing with the future i.e. Weak FTR languages, are more likely to save money, than those who speak languages which require the use a future tense i.e. Strong FTR languages.

He offers figures which seem to show that weak FTR users are:
  • Likely to have saved 39% more by the time they retire.
  • 31% more likely to save in a year.
  • 24% less likely to smoke.
  • 29% more likely to be physically active.
  • 13% less likely to be obese.

And the reasons according to Professor Chen are that "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. That effectively makes it harder for you to save." ... or give up cigarettes, or exercise etc etc.

All Languages are either FTR Strong or Weak

Of course economists, linguists and social anthropologists are already arguing against his findings, saying that there are a number of cultural, social, or economic reasons why different language speakers behave differently .... and yet I find this argument superficially compelling. The English speaking world is generally poorer at saving, and long-term planning etc than the German speaking world. However on the negative side, our CHAVS are renowned for not being able to get tenses correct - the classic is "Can you borrow me some money" .... so you would think that they would save more than the rest of us .... which of course they don't.

In fact you could argue that the fact that the UK faces winters of blackouts and other infrastructure issues is down to the fact that our politicians find it easy to disassociate the present from the future when its only the future that benefits. Tony Blair was aware of the need to set the nuclear reactors building programme in motion to save the UK from issue 25 yrs later .... but he flimflammed and kicked it down the path .... now we still haven't started the building and face an energy gap in which we may have to reopen coal and gas fired generating plants, to stop us huddling in the dark.

Who would have thought it was partially down to language, and not just political cowardice .....


  1. Sounds quite feasible to me. There are a lot of factors which motivate our behaviour but language is so integral to our mindset and world-view that it must be a major influence.

    Douglas Adams wrote that the best way to avoid discontentment in life is not to have a word for it.

    1. As we move in to the instant celebrity and sound bite attention span of soceities in the West, this may be increasingly a problem, for us, as the Chinese definitely take the long view of history.


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