Speak in the present tense, retire rich


SAVINGS averse? The way English forces you to speak and think about the future could be to blame.

According to Keith Chen, a UCLA economist, speakers of languages with a weak future tense are more likely to act responsibly on behalf of their future selves.

They save more money, exercise more regularly and avoid smoking more than speakers of strong future tense languages like, say, English.

I will save more... won't I?

In English, for example, we might say: "I will go to work" or "I am going to work". The future tense is clearly marked.

In contrast, the speaker of a weak future tense language is encouraged to use less differentiation between the present and the future.

In Chinese, for example, instead of the above we might say: "wo qu gong zuo". Literally, 'I go work', no different from the present tense.

Chen's paper, published last month in the American Economic Review [pdf], speculates that, as a result of this difference, speakers of languages with a strong future tense think of their present selves at a remove from their future selves.

Far fetched?

If this all sounds a bit barmy to you, you're in good company.

But the central premise, that the fundamentals of language can shape behaviour, isn't a new one.

Studies have shown that, for example, native speakers of languages without a word for orange have more difficulty distinguishing between shades of yellow. As a whole, the field is known as Whorfian linguistics.

Whorfian theory, explained.

Moreover, Chen not only analysed a huge amount of data on different countries, he attempted to account for some of, the many, confounding variables.

For example, he found the same differences in behaviour in people living in the same country but speaking different languages, like German (weak future) and French (strong future) speakers in Switzerland.

Language problems

All of which is not to say that Chen's hypothesis is without problems. Here are just two.

For one thing, and maybe this is just down to ignorance of linguistics but still, it seems weird to classify English as an strong future tense language when we so often use the present tense to talk about the future.

Chen says that to explain to a colleague why he'll miss a meeting, "English grammar would oblige me to say 'I will go, am going, or have to go to a seminar'."

Even ignoring that 'am going' is present continuous tense which doesn't seem to be a particularly strong form of the future, there are a number of present tense forms we could use to say the same thing.

What about: 'I have a seminar' or 'that seminar is at 2 o'clock tomorrow'?

The headline of this article is in the present tense but the second clause clearly refers to the (future) consequence of the first.

Similarly, in Chinese, one of the weak future tense languages, it's common to put time markers at the start of a phrase ('tomorrow I go work' rather than 'I will go to work tomorrow') which seems, if anything, to put more emphasis on the future than in English.

Even if we accept that these language differences are real enough to be split into two distinct groups, it seems highly likely that the correlation between that difference and average behaviour could be spurious.

A 2012 study on language structure and behaviour pointed out that, in really big data sets like these, statistically significant, but bananas, correlations are not hard to find.

For example, the researchers said, there's a strong correlation between countries that have tonal languages and countries where a certain type of tree - Acacia Nilotica - grows. "A causal link is, obviously, very unlikely," they note.

Again, however, linguists have run the numbers and found them to be not as dicey as they appear.

What does it mean for your savings?

And this is a personal finance site so, rather than speculate much more about whether this theory is true, let's think about what it might mean for our ability to save if it were true.

Earlier this year, Chen told BBC Business that, "it actually seems like encouraging yourself to think in the present tense makes it a little bit easier to engage in self-control."

So maybe instead of saying, "I'm going to save £20 a week" we could start saying, "I save £20 a week", which does sound better, though runs the risk of technically being a lie.

All this must be music to the ears of self-help gurus who've been peddling present tense affirmations for years, though on slightly shakier scientific ground ("our thoughts, whether they are positive or negative, are an energy that connects to the universal consciousness..." one site I looked at explained).

Maybe they were right all along, though.

The study also brings to mind many others which have found that predicting our future behaviour is a tricky business.

To take just one example, a study published in January this year found that most people experience what they called 'an end of history illusion', the misconception that their future self wouldn't change very much.

Participants clung on to this belief even though they could easily identify how much their present beliefs and behaviour differed from their past selves.

Faced with such barriers, maybe it would be worth giving speaking in the present tense a try.

Or, wait, I speak in the present tense. This might be harder than I thought.

Chen's TED talk on his idea.

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