Future Tense Means Tense Future for Loser Users

by Translation Guy on February 20, 2012

Anybody that uses a  language with a future tense is a loser, says economist  Keith Chen of Yale Business School, more or less. Because in a language with a future tense, “I will do it,” actually means, “I will do it in the future.” And we all that what that means. It ain’t gettin’ done.

Chen had noticed that all those get-up-and-go countries used languages without a strong-FTR (future tense reference) in their grammar.  “I find that speakers of languages with little to no grammatical distinction between the present and future engage in much more future-oriented behavior.

“Weak FTR language-speakers engage in much more future-oriented behavior than those who speak in strong-FTR languages.” His paper, The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets has the kind of Whorfian “language as destiny” argument that editors love, so it’s been getting plenty of attention, even though Chen’s paper is still a work in progress.

Chen says he can prove that speakers of strong-FTR languages smoke more, are fatter and are sicker than their weak-FTP counterparts. Plus, they aren’t saving as much for retirement! Sounds like those strong-FTR types with all their bad habits aren’t candiates for a long retirement anyway, though. Chen says these behavioral tendencies “hold true in every major region of the world and holds even when comparing only demographically similar individuals born and living in the same country.”

What about English? Strong or Weak? As if you had to ask. Just look at the sillouette of that guy standing in front of you in the Cinnibon line. Or that bleary-eyed hangover staring back at you in the mirror, you lazy English-speaking non-saver! Speaking English is like the new Walk of Shame.

Now I quote David Berreby, who took the time to read Chen’s paper.  “In Europe, speakers of weak-FTR languages (German, Finnish and Estonian are examples) were 30 percent more likely to have saved money in a given year than were equivalent speakers of a strong-FTR language (English, Spanish or Greek, for instance). (To put that in perspective, according to Chen’s analysis, speaking a strong-FTR language is as a big a risk-factor for not-saving as unemployment.) Weak-FTR language-speakers have piled up an average of 170,000 more euros per person for their retirement than strong-FTR speakers, and are 24 percent less likely to have smoked heavily, 29 percent more likely to exercise regularly, and 13 percent less likely to be obese. The weak-FTR speakers even had stronger grips and great lung capacity than did those whose grammar forced them to mark the difference between today and tomorrow. National records reflect individual habits too, Chen writes: ‘Countries with weak-FTR languages save on average six percent more of their GDP per year than their strong-FTR counterparts,”

Chen thinks that weak-FTR languages makes looking to the future easier, since people without the strong future tense reference are already in the future. Critics says this is Whorfian nonsense– language does not shape thought. But new cognitive theory may suggest otherwise. Economists are looking over the shoulders of brain researchers to better understand human decision making. It’s not  a pretty picture.

I’m reading Daniel Kahnman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, who describes our consciousness as an afterthought of fast thinking, which is quick,  effortless and clueless, and easily influenced by random events. A few words can change everything.

There’s more to this story, but I don’t want to write long. If readers are interested I will pick up on this in the future.


  1. Terzić says:

    Excuse my English, but if it is compared the countries in David Berrby’s quotation, you are comparing apples to oranges when it comes to peoples livelihood.

  2. Joyce Chen says:

    The man in the picture seems very proud of his buns and now I have a craving and heading out to the mall food court.

    • Ken says:

      Very future-oriented of you, Joyce.

  3. I am interested to see how all of this unravels. I imagine there is a lot to be done yet.

  4. I guess if you look at the right group of people, there can be a correlation drawn between anything. But millions of people speak the same language, yet we can’t be certain to pigeon whole them into a certain type of person.

  5. I can see how people who put things off to the future may be in a weaker physical state, and that may be because they are smoking or drinking at the moment. I see this as on the money for my brother and mom, but my sister is overweight and constantly on the go. I think I will pay a little closer attention to how they speak in the next few weeks and see if they hold true to Chen’s claim.

  6. Ted Bunn says:

    I would leave a better comment, but I plan on reading the rest of the blog later.

    • Ken says:

      Looking forward to it. Care for a donut?

  7. Ryan Lam says:

    “I will do it” always refers to the future, otherwise it would be “I am doing it.” It’s impossible to do evrything now. There has to be a future tense in language.

    • Ken says:

      It depends on how you define the future.

  8. I don’t buy it. Look at any country or any language, even th USA. Plenty of skinny and fat people. Plenty of smokers and non. Plenty of ying and yang, so to speak. I think it has more to do with genetics and environement, not so much the language spoken. Actually, I’m skinny and my brother isn’t. He drinks and uses tobacco, I don’t. We speak pretty much the same.

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