Future Speak

Economist Keith Chen tracks how language structures affect our spending and health patterns.

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Keith Chen, associate professor of economics at the Yale School of Management, focuses on what economists can learn from linguists. At TEDGlobal, he shared insights on financial patterns across countries that greatly distinguish between present and future events, as reflected in their language structures. Linguists classify these languages, such as English, as having a strong future-tense reference, or FTR. And those tongues that do not emphasize the difference between now and tomorrow, such as German, are known as weak-FTR languages.

In English, speakers are forced to use words such as “will” or ”going to,” as in “It will/is going to rain tomorrow.” In German, the same would be “It rains tomorrow.” Chen has found evidence that the way our languages depict the present and future often correlates to how we handle our money, as well as other behaviors, such as how we care for our health.

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Chen and his colleagues analyzed speakers of numerous languages, controlling for factors such as country of residence, marital status, income, sex, and education, among others. The goal was to compare households with nearly identical backgrounds, except for the languages they spoke. His research found that speakers of strong-FTR languages are less prone to save. Conversely, speakers of weak-FTR languages are more likely to put a priority on lifestyle and spending decisions that prioritize the well-being of their future selves, from quitting smoking to curbing their recreational spending.

No single culture that Chen studied is more aware of the concept of “future” than another, he stated in a recent interview. Rather, some languages prompt the speaker to think about the consequences of their immediate actions when communicating these actions, versus procrastinating on making wise economic or health decisions.

In the near future, Chen’s research could likely also affect how we understand and predict global economic behaviors—and help us better manage our own everyday ones. —Elizabeth Wood

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Infographics by Nathan Burazer, visual designer II at frog

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