Trying to quit smoking? Learn German.

If you want to get people to look after themselves better, maybe all you have to do is change their language.

A recent paper from Yale showed that people whose native language allows them to refer to the future in the present tense, take better care of themselves in the future*.

They go on to save more, smoke less, eat better and practice safe sex more often.

So, what do the Yalies mean by ‘refer to the future in the present tense’? Think of it this way: in English, we use a verb’s future tense to talk about tomorrow’s weather: “It will rain tomorrow.”

Or think about that piece of work you’ve been putting off. In English, we say ‘I will do the work tomorrow’.

As a result, we conceptualise the future as something spatially distant. Look at Alfie below. See how his future self is a separate being?

past present future me

 

But different languages have a different way of painting a picture about the future.

Contrast Alfie with his German uncle, Onkel Alfred. He can describe the future using the present tense. He might say, ‘I do the work tomorrow,’* (‘Ich mache das morgen’) and in his mind this paints a clear continuum from the present to the future. The future isn’t ‘over there’, it’s now right next to Onkel Alfred in the present. So, actually, he’s more likely to get on and do the work today. Gut gemacht, Onkel Alfred.

It’s another example of how language is a lens through which we view our lives – our thoughts, our decisions and our behaviour.

If you can influence the language that people use, you can change their behaviour.

I’d like to thank Jana, our quintilingual project manager for helping with this post. If you’re interested how tenses differ in English, German, Italian, French or Japanese, then tweet her in the language of your choice.

 If you’d like to learn how a change in a brand’s language can change how people behave, then email Chris.

 

* = ‘The effect of language on economic behaviour: evidence from savings rates, health behaviours, and retirement assets’, by Chen, Yale University, April 2013.

**(Sure, it might sound odd to our ears, but English is the exception. It’s the only Germanic language to insist on the future tense when you’re making predictions.)