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How the language you speak affects your future
Speakers of languages like Japanese, Mandarin, and German are healthier and more wealthy as they age. Here's why
Japanese speakers smoked less, exercised more, and tended to be healthier overall as they aged, according to a new study.
Japanese speakers smoked less, exercised more, and tended to be healthier overall as they aged, according to a new study. Thinkstock
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n the Japanese language, the distinction between present and future tense is a little blurry. English phrases like "will" or "be going to," which indicate the future, do exist, but denoting the future is not always necessary for sentence construction. Instead, the future is usually indicated by adding a specific time reference, such as the word 明日 ashita (tomorrow). Hence, phrases like "I go to school" and "I will go to school" can be written the same way.

That's partly what makes the following study so interesting. Keith Chen of Yale Business School wondered if this weaker distinction between the present and the future in languages like Japanese, Mandarin, and German somehow forced speakers to think differently, and whether that thought process had a tangible effect on how they went about their lives. Some languages, like English, Russian, and Korean, require speakers to refer to the future explicitly. If the "idea" of the future in your language was somehow given less emphasis, could that carry real weight in the way you plan out your life? Scientific American's Ozgun Atasoy explains:

Chen's recent findings suggest that an unlikely factor, language, strongly affects our future-oriented behavior. Some languages strongly distinguish the present and the future. Other languages only weakly distinguish the present and the future. Chen's recent research suggests that people who speak languages that weakly distinguish the present and the future are better prepared for the future. They accumulate more wealth and they are better able to maintain their health. The way these people conceptualize the future is similar to the way they conceptualize the present. As a result, the future does not feel very distant and it is easier for them to act in accordance with their future interests. [Scientific American]

In the study, Chen analyzed individual-level data from 76 developing and developed countries, including how much money its people made last year, the languages they speak, cultural values, demographic information, and more. He also took a look at how often a country's citizens exercised, how much they saved for retirement, and the general health of the population as they aged. After stripping away various factors like income, education level, religious affiliations, and more, Chen noticed there were notable differences between languages that required future markers, like English, and those that didn't.

For starters, the data showed that future-oriented language speakers were 30 percent less likely to save money for the future. On the other hand, countries without a mandatory language marker in their languages typically had higher national savings rates, and their citizens usually had more retirement assets. 

Then there was health: People who spoke languages without obligatory markers, like Mandarin and Japanese, smoked less, exercised more, were less likely to be obese, and tended to be healthier overall as they aged. The findings seem to suggest that people speaking languages without a future-time reference were less likely to see the future as something far away that they don't have to worry about at the moment.

You can read the whole study here [PDF]. Chen admits that there are holes his models don't cover (geography does matter, for instance). But it's a fascinating read nonetheless.

Chris Gayomali is the science and technology editor for TheWeek.com. Sometimes he writes about other stuff. His work has also appeared in TIME, Men's JournalEsquire, and The Atlantic.

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