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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.
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.

"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.

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