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Does your first language have a future tense? If so, bad news to report. You’re likely to save less, smoke more, and become overweight. The details are in a TED talk by behavioral economist Keith Chen that my friend Janet emailed me.
Chen’s hypothesis is that people whose languages don’t separate the future from the present tend to plan ahead better because they perceive future time vividly as a continuation of the present, not as a separate, distant thing. The idea is that if I can tell myself: “I will quit smoking tomorrow”, I’m able to assign quitting to the cozy abstraction of a mañana that’s always just over the next horizon.
Chen believes that if, as in Japanese, for example, your only grammatical choice is “Tomorrow I quit”, you’re more likely to perceive tomorrow as connected to today and, therefore, just get on with it. Or, in the words of the great American philosopher Janis Joplin: “It’s all the same f****** day, man”.
Where does English score? We’ve got a future tense, of course, but we also often speak about the future (“I will quit”) using a present progressive form (“I’m going to quit”) and, to be particularly evocative, we can say “tomorrow I quit”. That puts us in the middle. Interestingly, Chen separates UK and US English, putting the UK more towards the future-using end of the scale and the US towards the present-using scale. Some of the languages at the end of the futureless scale are Chinese, Japanese, German, and Dutch.
So Chen’s Nike-esque advice to people who want to make a change in life? Don’t say “I will do it.” Just say “I do it.”