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The 'Futureless zone': Can language affect economic behavior?

An economist at Yale University believes that the language we speak can affect our behavior; particularly in relation to the future. But could the way we deploy the future tense really determine our economic behavior?

There are certain countries around the world which could be termed "futureless", if the Yale economist, Professor Keith Chen is to be believed. But, don't panic, the term might sound doom laden, but in fact, the 10 percent of countries around the world which qualify for this "futureless zone" are in fact doing rather well economically, that is, at least if you look at their savings records, Chen told DW.

Chen believes that countries which conflate their talk of the present with the future, feel the future more keenly, and therefore exhibit behavior which prepares for that future in the present, i.e. by saving more money, or being better about practicing safe sex. Countries on the other hand which have more structured ways of talking about the future, with properly conjugated tenses, tend to see their future as further away, and therefore something that can be put off until tomorrow and ignored.

The term, was in fact coined by a Swedish linguist, Professor Östen Dahl in the year 2000, talking about an area of Northern Europe which encompasses countries like Germany, Finland, the Baltic countries, excluding Russia, Scandinavia, Flemish speaking Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, and German speaking Switzerland.

Infografik The Futureless zone ENG. (Source: Assoc. Prof Keith Chen, Yale University and Professor Östen Dahl, Stockholm University, Sweden)

A map of Europe showing the countries which put less emphasis on a future tense in green

Ten percent of countries in the world don't differentiate the future

Professor Chen has extended that to countries all over the world which exhibit similar grammatical structures when referring to the future. Countries like China, Japan, South Korea, or Yoruba speaking people in Nigeria. But it's a term that, Dahl told DW, he now feels "he wishes he hadn't used," as he didn't expect it to later pop up in a report which correlated linguistic research about how a language grammatically talks about the future, with economic behavior; a correlation which he believes is hard to demonstrate irrevocably. He explained, "it's a bit like saying oh look, lots of countries in the world that play cricket, also drive on the left, whilst ignoring that those countries were often part of the British Empire, and took on both the sport and the way of driving as part of that empire."

Dahl adds that the term suggests that there are also only two types of linguistic structure in the world, (those who talk about the future in distinct and different terms, and those who don't) which ignores the fact that there are gradations and variations of how a language might talk about the past, present or future.

But Chen seems aware of that. He starts by talking about differences between English and German. English belongs in the block of countries which talks about the future in a distinct way, often by using the word "will", for example, "tomorrow I will go shopping" whereas German speakers will often use the present to refer to the future. "Morgen gehe ich shoppen" (Literally translated: Tomorrow I go shopping, although they can use a construction similar to the English with the addition of "werden".

Mandarin also uses no future tense

Chinese also uses the present tense to talk about the future quite happily. And lo and behold, according to Chen's figures, China, even taking into account poverty levels in the country and the communist past, saves quite heavily compared to Asian countries with similar poverty levels which have different linguistic structures for the future.

A woman buys vegetables in a market in Shanghai in China. (Photo:PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

Mandarin is another language which uses predominantly present tense to talk about the future

Chen states that "The futureless language speaking family is over 20 percent more likely than the future language speaking family to report having saved in any given year. Will accumulate more than 30, sometimes 40 percent more in retirement assets by the time they retire, and it's not just financial savings, but a lot of different behavior too."

Infografik The Futureless zone (Source OECD via Assoc. Prof Keith Chen, Yale University)

Savings data from "futureless" and "futured" countries over 25 years

Futureless languages are 'more likely to practice safe sex and smoke less'

Chen found that those who speak futureless languages smoke less, and will be more likely to use safe sex, than those speaking a future language. In order to rule out as many variables as possible, Chen didn't just compare whole nations with each other, he went to the 9 countries in the world (Switzerland and Nigeria being two) which have several linguistic families within their national borders.

He then tried to find real families who were similar in almost every respect, from income levels, to education, to the size of the family and age of the parents and children, even the same city sometimes, but who differed in that they spoke a different language. He found that those who were from futureless speaking families were noticeably, 13 per cent, less likely to smoke. They are also measurably less likely to be obese, more physically active and healthier at retirement."

Safe sex is a 'savings behavior'

Close up of colorful condoms over white background (Photo: © Sergejs Rahunoks #41705520)

Safe sex is another "savings behavior" which defers current pleasure for future gain

Chen continues, "in developing countries, like Africa, in some places, over a third of the adult population is HIV positive, so the biggest health investment you can make is in safe sex. Safe sex is effectively a 'savings behavior'. And you find that, even controlling for religion, age etc, you find that a Yoruba speaking man will be 13 percent more likely to report using a condom in his last sexual encounter than a Hausa speaking man, even if they are of the same religion and education."

In the case of Nigeria, Chen admits that more Hausa speaking people are in the north of the country and tend to be Muslim, and more Yoruba speaking people are from further South and are predominantly Christian, but he insists that he tried to control for that too, and "whichever way you cut the data, these statistics pop back out".

European borders

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras give statements to the media following a meeting between the two leaders at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany. (Photo:Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

Germany and Greece, at opposite ends of the scale

Back in Europe, using Professor Dahl's map, and Chen's findings, it is perhaps not surprising that the Northern countries tend to be stronger economically. According to Chen, Greece showed the lowest savings percentage wise per GDP over a period from 1985-2010 and Greece, like Italy, France, Spain and Portugal is very careful to conjugate a distinct future tense; Interestingly enough though, Chen adds that he also compared Brazilian Portuguese with mainland Portuguese. He found, surprisingly that Brazilians tended to save more than the Portuguese, then he discovered that Brazilian Portuguese had developed a way of talking about the future in the present which differed from European Portuguese.

More about history, culture and religion than language?

Dahl remains convinced that the economic strength of Northern Europe has much more to do with religion and culture, he says "it is not a side issue that most of those countries speaking so called 'futureless' languages also have a predominantly protestant work ethic," which he thinks is much more determining than the language that evolves, although that discounts the UK and the US which also have largely protestant roots.

Dahl points out that Russians may not save because they were brought up under communism, but in Communist East Germany, anecdotal evidence suggests that many people saved proportionately just as hard as their West German counterparts, and even the Chinese, essentially still living within a capitalized communist system seem keen to squirrel away their money for a rainy day when they can.

Bucking the trend

A picture of European bank notes.(Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa)

Families who speak a "futureless" language are 20-30% more likely to save than families who don't

If you happen to have been born in to a future language, don't worry though says Chen laughingly. There are always people who buck the trend, and you don't have to follow the herd.

He avoided talking to immigrants for his initial study, as they would usually have access to two or more languages and cultures and might have confused things, but he has tentatively started thinking about how language can change how you behave once you learn a new one. He found early data which suggested that children who learnt Chinese at school in Utah on a state sponsored program would exhibit more "savings behavior" than those who stuck with English.

Manifesting the future

And, to back up his ideas even more, he refers to a study about pensions from a colleague of his in the US, who found that people tended to save more when asked to tick a pension form which had in the top right hand corner a picture of themselves aged by the computer. When the future manifested itself in the present, as it does for those who speak "futureless" languages, they were forced to confront the march of time, and quickly started squirreling away more money, than those who ticked a form with no picture, or a picture of themselves in the present moment.

Whether or not it is language, or culture, or history, or a combination of all three, it seems that when we can "see" the future, we tend to prepare for it better and exhibit the kind of "sensible savings behavior" that Chen has been studying. Perhaps a lesson for those who are desperately searching for the crystal ball to get us out of the present financial crisis.

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