How the languages we speak affect our behaviour

In the early 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the language we speak can influence the way humans think and act. Since then, others have taken different views and argued that everyone around the world shares a common grammar and language does not significantly affect our behaviour. But recent research by Keith Chen of Yale Business School seems to back those who believe that language can have a direct influence on the way we live our lives.

Blurring Present & Future Tenses

In particular, Chen’s research found that those who spoke languages where there is less distinction between the present and future were more inclined to be prepared for their future lives, notably in terms of health and wealth. The theory is that when there are distinct language markers to separate the present and the future, the future seems a lot further away and therefore less of a concern in the present. In turn, if the future and the present seem a lot closer together due to the way a particular language refers to them, then preparing for the future is more of a daily reality.

Without going too much into the science of his research, it seems that Chen did his due diligence in looking at the various other influences that might affect how people plan for the future. There are obviously many other factors at play when considering our behaviours, such as income, education, age, religion and cultural values. But after all these were accounted for, it turned out that the language spoken was a large influence on habits.

How Language Affects Income & Health

So, the burning question is: what language do I have to speak to become healthier and wealthier? Well, I’m afraid if you’re reading this blog in your native language then you’re not one of the lucky ones. English requires that we separate the future and the present by using different words. You can’t say “I go to the shops tomorrow”, it should be “I’m going to the shops tomorrow” or “I will go to the shops tomorrow”. Similarly, the romance languages have very clear grammatical rules for separating the various tenses. As well as different words, verbs are conjugated differently to distinguish between past, present and future, e.g. “Je donne/Je donnerai”, “Yo doy/Yo daré”. According to Chen’s theory, these “future markers” mean that speakers of these languages view the future as something more remote, something that is not necessarily a concern right now.

In other languages, such as Mandarin and German, these future markers are not necessarily required and speakers often use the same verb forms to refer to both the present and the future. An equivalent would be using “I go” for both actions happening right now and at a later time. The theory follows that speakers of these languages tend to view the future as a lot closer in time and therefore a concern in the present.

It would seem logical that if the future is a concern right now, then habits such as saving money and looking after your health would be more of a priority than for those who see the future as something to be worried about another day. This is what the research found—that after other factors had been accounted for, speakers of Mandarin, Japanese and German among others were better at saving money and looking after their health.

It seems incredible that something as simple as the way we talk can affect our behaviour. Another scientific study conducted by Ellen Langer even showed that there were health benefits to changing the tense in which we speak! She got seniors to recount stories of their younger days but using the present tense as if they were living through the experiences at that very moment. This brought the past back to life and seemed to alter their mindset, which in turn affected their physical wellbeing.

So, it seems the way in which we talk about both the past and the future can have significant effects on our behaviour. And rather than accept that this is all set in stone depending on our native language, perhaps we just need to alter the way we express ourselves to bring these benefits to everyone, regardless of grammar rules and verb conjugation.

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