The future is behind us.
Most of what I learned in college has left me. But there are two linguistic facts that have always stayed. To this day, I think of them often.
I remember an anthropology class where I learned about a native tribe who only had 4 numbers in their language: ”One”, “two”, “three” and “more than three.” I often wondered how that worked with their accounting and tax returns.
Secondly, I learned that ancient Greeks considered the future to be behind us. This sounds backwards to English speakers, but the Greek word “opiso,” which literally means ”back” or ”behind,” refers to the future and not the past. And if you open your mind to it, this makes a lot more sense. We know very well what happened in the past. We, hopefully, know with certainty what we had for breakfast this morning. From this perspective, we can see what is in front of us (the past) very clearly.
The future, however, is another matter entirely. It is difficult to predict or know what will happen in the future. From this perspective, the future would naturally be behind us, because we cannot see it.
I have long held these thoughts to remind myself that my conception of reality is arbitrary. It is just what I was taught and what I perceive. It is not, necessarily, truth. This has helped me become a great problem solver.
This is also one of the reasons Coley and I recommend learning a new language. Not only does it open geographical doors, but it expands your mind in ways that are hard to explain. At least, it has always been hard for me to explain, but with the help of the following example, I will attempt.
Keith Chen, a behavioral economist (I know, what the hell is that?) and a professor at Yale, did a study that adds more fuel to the fire. He ran across a curious map of Europe that showed which languages have a strong sense of the future and which ones do not.
To clarify, some languages have many rules, tenses, and grammar concerning the future. English is a perfect example. Other languages do not. These languages pay little attention to the future. In fact, when the context is right, they treat the future as if it were now.
Here is how Professor Chen describes it…
“If I wanted to explain to an English-speaking colleague why I can’t attend a meeting later today, I could not say, ‘I go to a seminar,’ English grammar would oblige me to say,’I will go, am going, or have to go, to a seminar.’
If, on the other hand, I were speaking Mandarin, it would be quite natural for me to omit any marker of future time and say, ‘I go listen seminar,’ since the context leaves little room for misunderstanding.”
Ok, so back to the map.
As an economist of sorts, he noticed the languages that did not spend a lot of energy differentiating the future from the present were located in countries that were doing well economically. As you can guess Spanish, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, and French are not on the list. He found that curious and conducted some studies.
Here is what he determined:
If your language is not strong in future time reference (FTR) then you are:
- Likely to have saved 39% more by the time you retire
- 31% more likely to save money in a year
- 24% less likely to smoke
- 29% more likely to be physically active
- 13% less likely to be obese
That is pretty interesting! Maybe I should have continued studying German and not Spanish.
There are plenty of folks who have taken issue with his findings, as you may guess. They argue that cultural, economic, and social issues might explain his results. But Chen took those things into account. He studied multi-lingual countries where he found people with the same education and social structures. The only difference, their language.
OK, so if you buy this premise, the next question would be why? Why
would this make a difference? In fact, it might seem that people who pay more attention to the future would save more
than their less concerned counterparts. They would be considering the future, not ignoring it, right?
Try this on for size:
The act of saving is fundamentally about understanding that your future self -the person you’re saving for- is in some sense equivalent to your present self. If your language separates the future and the present in its grammar, that seems to lead you to slightly disassociate the future from the present every time you speak.
How does all this concern me, you may ask? My point in sharing it is to emphasize how much learning a new language changes
your worldview. It gives you flexibility to see the world in new ways and this type of flexibility is exactly
what is needed to become resilient.
It is what allows you to see novel solutions to new problems. Today learning a language has never been easier. (Think Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone) So whatever language you started to learn and then never finished…get back to it!
If you want more info on Chen’s research here is the actual study: LINK
Or if you are not up for reading a 46-page Yale professor study (with a 9 page appendix), here is a 13-minute Ted talk Professor Chen did that is a lot easier on the brain: LINK