RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The language we speak affects much of how we understand the world, and probably in more ways than you think. Keith Chen is a professor of economics at UCLA, and he's been studying some examples of this. He's found that the way language is structured can influence our eating habits, our likelihood of smoking, even the way we spend or save our money. Keith Chen, welcome to the program.
KEITH CHEN: Thank you. It's exciting to be here.
MARTIN: So explain how this works.
CHEN: Broken down, what it really, really comes down to is that languages differ to the degree that they force you, when you speak them, to pay attention to the difference between the future and the present. In English, we have the past tense - "I ran"; we have the present progressive - "I'm running"; but we don't have a future form - "rin" - right? There's no kind of future "run." But we do have kind of a necessary obligatory form - "we will run." OK. I can't say, "tomorrow, it rain." Right? I have to say "tomorrow, it will rain."
CHEN: So flip all the way to the other side. And there are languages - many, many languages - on the planet which are effectively futureless. So languages like Finnish, and languages like Mandarin and Chinese - you literally, in Mandarin and Chinese, say, "It rain tomorrow." So the critical difference here is whether when you're speaking a particular language, it forces you every time you're thinking about a future event. to note in your head and to speak as if that future is something viscerally and grammatically different than the present.
MARTIN: What does that say about our habits?
CHEN: When people speak a futureless language, they talk about future events as if they're the present. If your grammar puts the future and the present on equal footing, it appears as if you're more willing to put the future and the present on equal footing in your decision-making. And that kind of subtle distinction, my research shows, appears to have kind of psychological effects as well. Countries whose languages grammatically associate the future and the present, save almost 5 percent more of their GDP per year. And that's over great swaths of time.
MARTIN: So what are the practical implications of this research?
CHEN: I think this research is not yet at the stage where I can say, you know, if you use the future tense, you know, 20 percent less, then you're going to save X percent more.
CHEN: I know. shoot - although I would point out that a lot of self-help gurus, not only do they suggest that in order to meet goals you should write down lists of goals that you're trying to kind of aspire to, but that you should actually write them down in the present tense. You know, as a behavioral economist, what I'm mainly doing is using this type of research to try and explore the degree to which kind of subtly, language can impact how we think about these very difficult and abstract problems that we're faced with all the time. I'm trying to eventually deepen our understanding of that process and then hopefully, eventually help us make better decisions.
MARTIN: Keith Chen - he is a professor of economics at UCLA. Thank you so much for talking with us.
CHEN: Thank you, Rachel. It's been a pleasure.
MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.