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Does This Language Make Me Look Fat?

Russia's problems with obesity and alcoholism may be rooted in the country's language, a new study suggests.
Russia's problems with obesity and alcoholism may be rooted in the country's language, a new study suggests.
By Daisy Sindelar
One of the first things Regiina Nohova had to learn when she moved to the Czech Republic was how to open her mouth wider when she spoke.

As a native-born Estonian, she simply wasn't in the habit.

"In Estonia, we speak slowly," she said. "We almost don't open our mouths when we speak. We don't have to articulate the words. It's our nature. It's colder there, and people spend more time inside, and that's why we're like this. I think there's a very big difference between Estonian and Czech people, and how they speak and express themselves."

Nohova, who lives in Prague with her Czech husband and two daughters, has since mastered both the Czech language and the art of more active articulation.

But the 35-year-old yoga instructor says even though they now speak the same language, she and her husband still have their differences, especially when it comes to a healthy lifestyle.
Regiina Nohova, a native of Estonia who now lives in Prague with her Czech husband.Regiina Nohova, a native of Estonia who now lives in Prague with her Czech husband.
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Regiina Nohova, a native of Estonia who now lives in Prague with her Czech husband.
Regiina Nohova, a native of Estonia who now lives in Prague with her Czech husband.

"In the beginning, I think we were very different about food, especially after our daughters were born," she says. "About healthy food and how important it is. He said it wasn't so important. And about exercise also, I think. I do yoga and he doesn't do yoga. Even now."

It could be argued that such differences exist in every marriage.

But a new study in the United States now suggests that it could be the language you speak that affects your attitude toward a range of healthy habits, comprising everything from diet and exercise to how much money you save for your retirement.

M. Keith Chen, an associate professor of economics at Yale University, claims that languages whose grammar contains no explicit future tense -- languages like Mandarin, Japanese, German, and yes, Estonian -- are spoken by people who, statistically, are healthier and wealthier.

"The Japanese have been saving [money] for decades, despite effectively negative interest rates," he says. "The Chinese save like crazy. Germans are known as big savers. All of the Scandinavian and Nordic countries are also invariant savers. So that was the first relationship [between language and behavior] that I was really interested in.

"Is it possible that if your language doesn't force you to think differently about the future and the present, then it's actually easier for you to save for the future, because, well, the future feels more similar to the present to you."

'It Rains Tomorrow'

Chen reached his startling conclusion by gathering economic and social data from countries worldwide and then comparing them to the languages spoken in those countries.

What he found was that people in countries that ranked higher in terms of overall physical and fiscal responsibility almost invariably spoke languages categorized as having a "weak" FTR, or future-time reference.

(Think of Germany -- one of the European Union's strongest economies -- where people can forecast weather without using a clear future tense by saying "Morgen regnet es," or "It rains tomorrow.")

English, Czech, Russian, Persian, Turkish, Georgian, and other "strong" FTR languages, by contrast, scored more poorly in terms of overall physical and fiscal responsibility.

(Think of Russia -- which has some of the poorest health and lowest life expectancies in Europe -- where people use an explicit future tense to talk about the weather by saying "Zavtra budet dozhd," or "It will rain tomorrow.")

Future Tension

Time and again, Chen says, his research indicated that it was the people with no future tense in their languages who were, in a sense, less likely to be tense in the future:

"You find exactly the same pattern," Chen says. "Families that speak weak-FTR languages are 24 percent less likely to have ever smoked intensely -- meaning more than a pack a day for a year. They're 13 percent less likely to be obese. They have better grip strength by the time they retire. In numerous measures, they're in better long-run health."

Chen's study has sparked a sensation within the linguistic community, with some analysts and opinion-writers gleefully suggesting that language may actually be to blame for some of the world's most intractable problems, from the Greek bailout crisis to why some people can't fit into their jeans.

Many linguists, however, have dismissed Chen's findings outright.

Julie Sedivy, who teaches linguistics and psychology at the University of Calgary in Canada, says connecting language to behavior is "irresistible" for many people.

But she maintains that research like Chen's rarely demonstrates that any true relationship exists between grammar and traditional characteristics like thriftiness or healthy living.

"We still have the impression that some languages are more logical, or orderly, or romantic, than others," she says. "But this is really coming from associations that we have with the speakers of those languages, rather than the specific devices that the languages offer themselves."

Chen's study is currently up for academic review and has yet to be formally published.

So in the meantime, it may be too early to blame your mother tongue for the two kilos you gained last month.

Daisy Sindelar

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by: AF from: Brighton, MA
March 26, 2012 16:39
This is completely ridiculous.

England and US have had the highest rates of GDP growth in history of humanity in the 19th century (England — from 1700 till WWI). Today, UK has one of the least sick economies in Europe. US, despite its many problems, has enjoyed for the last century and is still enjoying the status of the world’s strongest economy.

At the same time, Japan has been in economic stagnation for the last three decades. Germany has been in one during the times of Weimar Republic — the second-worst inflation in the world’s history (first being Hungary). Chinese are Communists, heading for another depression (and the only reason why China is doing well at all is because it is America’s trade partner, making use of its cheap labor markets).

Simply put, there is no correlation with the language.

Now, I will give you a real factor that correlates with wealth: desire for freedom and individuality and mistrust of the government. UK: check. US: check. (Both of them more so before than now, hence the current snafu.) Germany: in terms of inflation (it learned its lesson), check. Japan: cross. Russia: cross. China: cross. Italy: cross. Greece: cross. (By the way, the article does not mention Greek’s formation of future tense.)

I don’t know how speech correlates with health, but if the author has committed such gross logical and factual errors re: wealth, I wouldn’t be surprised that he has no (or little) data to back up his claim.
In Response

by: grnqk
March 29, 2012 20:20
To AF, this might be ridiculous but at least read the article. Author is not correlating with wealth but with the habit of saving.
Saving does not make you wealthy it makes you safer.

Also saving takes away from investing which ends up slowing growth. Growth is where wealth creation comes from.
Does that make sense?

by: Sey from: World
March 26, 2012 16:45
I instantly remembered about this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbFC7USYuNI

I believe it is culture and the social patterns we live in what determine our behavior. Not language.

You could still be a very unhealthy person if you live in Germany and talk fluent German.

Or does this pattern only works for natives? Then again, culture not language.

by: AF from: Brighton, MA
March 26, 2012 17:09
>"In Estonia, we speak slowly," she said. "We almost don't open our mouths when we speak. We don't have to articulate the words. It's our nature. It's colder there, and people spend more time inside, and that's why we're like this."

Such nonsense. Russians speak fast. So do Finns, Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Icelanders, Canadians, Eskimos, polar bears, and penguins. Estonians are known to be made fun of for their way of speaking. A computer that freezes a lot is known in Russia as "Estonian computer".

by: George from: Bangor, Maine
March 26, 2012 18:43
um, this is a joke, right?

by: GardenGnome
March 26, 2012 19:55
Interesting. Studying Russian has changed my views on health, clothing, and lifestyle, but couldn't the climate also be a factor? For instance, I lost a lot of weight in the Summer of 2010, not only because of the walking, but because of the heat and the wildfires. The idea of food just made me nauseated.

by: oniondome from: Moscow
March 26, 2012 20:10
Speaking of Estonia, maybe this explains the origins of the saying

"эстонский кот - ручной тормоз"

by: Anne from: Victoria, BC, Canada
March 27, 2012 06:02
Not only does this seem very odd, some of the statements are not true. German has as much of a future tense as English (the original Indo-European had no explicit future tense) but the daughter languages seem to have developed them.
In Response

by: Tom from: Northern Germany
April 01, 2012 09:07
German has a future tense but it is not used in spoken language. Instead we use the present tense to describe future actions like for example the japanese do. You are certainly expected to use a correct future form in a written text but not in daily live. People 'think' in present tense concerning the future you could say. They don't differentiate between the present and future is what the article wants to say I think. That is quite different to english where you have to differentiate between several future (and present) tenses regarding the future. You are planing by 'going to' and expecting things by "will" but we don't need to be that concrete. That there is a future tense in german (two in fact) doesn't mean that people use it when not forced to do so by writing a text. In german there may be six tenses but in daily live we only use one tense for the past (perfect) and one for present and future (present) very similar to japanese. So you could say german had once a strong future tense but is in progress of losing it the same way english lost its cases and much more.

How about that correlation:
Cultural aspects influence both people's habits (like saving or not saving money) and their habit of using their language which concludes the development of that language? Something along that line sounds reasonable to me.
In Response

by: Anne from: Victoria, BC, Canada
April 01, 2012 15:37
Thank you for clearing that up Tom. I just started studying German, using a written book, so I was got it wrong.

I noticed that the German auxiliary "will" means "want" in German and in fact still carries this meaning in the English noun "will". Perhaps in English this usage gradually came to be more definite!

It is interesting that the original IE had no future tense, just the subjunctive ("if") and optative ("wish, hope"). But then life was more uncertain in those days. It seems more like culture would drive language than vice versa (although I am not a linguist).


by: vn from: Belgrade
March 27, 2012 08:51
I was just wondering if Keith Chen's study would be published in the economics or linguistics department at Yale University. Doubt this could pass as a serious academic work at a Chinese University in China (or Hong Kong for that matter - the Mandarine language).

As for the connection between the obesity factor and smoking - the Chinese would have to be the most obese people in the world, as they smoke the most.

Is this where the bleak and uneventful US economy is heading and leading the world to - the linguistics? Again, put the blame on Babylon, please.

As for the article - bad choice of photos, with poor dental job.

by: Vakhtang from: Moscow
March 27, 2012 09:46
I understood everything..
If Adolf Hitler spoke in English, there would be no Adolf Hitler...

by: J from: US
March 27, 2012 12:46
The idea is original, no doubt.
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