Ants, Grasshoppers and Language

Everyone remembers the fable of the ants and the grasshopper, right? The ants spend all summer collecting food while the grasshopper sings. Then, when winter comes, the grasshopper starves while the ants prosper. According to research from economist Keith Chen, your native language may influence whether or not you fall into the “ant” category or the “grasshopper” category.

In a paper published earlier this year, Chen hypothesized that  language may predispose us to bad habits like not saving money, smoking and obesity, based on whether or not the language in question has a distinct future tense for verbs.  Not all languages do. Some use the present tense; “I eat vegetables tomorrow” vs “I eat cake today, I will eat vegetables tomorrow.”  Without a future tense, the thinking goes, the future no longer seems dim and misty, and has a perceived value equal to that of the present.

Chen analyzed lifestyle and savings data for speakers of different languages, and the results appear to back up this line of thinking. The Atlantic reports:

“Remarkably, he discovered that speakers with weak future tenses (e.g. German, Finnish and Estonian) were 30 percent more likely to save money, 24 percent more likely to avoid smoking, 29 percent more likely to exercise regularly, and 13 percent less likely to be obese, than speakers of languages with strong future tenses, like English.”

In an attempt to rule out cultural influences, Chen compared statistics between people from the same country, and found that the patterns held even among people who grew up in the same country speaking different languages.

The research is interesting…but what does it mean? Should we all start speaking German, or perhaps Estonian? Not so fast… many linguists question Chen’s conclusions. For example, Columbia University’s John McWhorter told the BBC:

“The extent to which the language shapes the thought is tiny. We’re talking about milliseconds of reaction. None of it has ever been proven to have anything to do with how people see the world or experience life.”

What do you think of this research?



2 replies
  1. Douglas McCarthy
    Douglas McCarthy says:

    English doesn’t have a future tense, let alone a strong one. It uses the modal verbs, “will” and “shall”, along with expressions like “going to do something”, the present continuous and present simple to talk about future time, each form adding an extra meaning to the simple idea of futurity.
    French, on the other hand, has a future tense, and uses it along with the present tense to talk about future time.
    Does the author mean that among the forms that German uses to talk about future time, “werden” + infinitive is not used very much compared to the present tense?
    Looking at speakers of all three languages, I can’t observe any significant differences in the vectors cited (saving, smoking, obesity). In any case, if you managed to establish a statistically valid sample and somehow filter out the issue of culture (we live in multicultural societies today), and then obtained something suggestive of coherent differences between speakers of various languages, the way they all talk about the future cannot be correlated to the statistical results.


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