Can the way we speak affect the way we perceive time and judge politics? Languages oblige speakers to distinguish grammatically between the present and future to varying degrees. A futured tongue like English directs speakers to use different grammatical tenses when talking about the future versus the present, as in “I will write tomorrow” versus “I write today”. But in a futureless language like Finnish, speakers simply say “kirjoitan” (“I write”), irrespective of whether they are talking about the future or the present.
These nuances matter politically, we claim, because they reinforce or blur the differences between today and tomorrow. Having to speak about the future using a present rather than future tense makes tomorrow seem more similar and less distant from today. As a result, speakers of futureless languages should be less likely than speakers of futured languages to discount the future, thereby increasing their support for long-range political initiatives.
We appraise these claims in two ways. First, we conducted a survey experiment in Estonia with bilingual adults (N=1,200) who speak a futureless (Estonian) and futured (Russian) language by randomly assigning their interview language. We find that in comparison to those assigned to interview in Russian, respondents assigned to interview in Estonian are more supportive of a green gas tax. We further show that this arises because speaking a futureless language makes one’s time perspective more future-oriented. For example, respondents assigned to interview in Estonian are less likely to state that “not completing things on time does not worry them” is characteristic of them; while they are more likely to state that to “keep working on uninteresting tasks to get ahead” and “resist temptation when there is work to do” are more characteristic of them Finally, we fail to uncover a difference by interview language in support for criminalizing prostitution – a placebo policy proposal with no obvious time referent.
We then gauged language’s impact cross-nationally using the latest wave of the World Values Survey. We analyzed respondents’ support for a future-oriented policy (protecting the environment) and engagement in a future-oriented behavior (saving money in the last year). Net of several political and socio-economic covariates, we find that in comparison to a person who speaks a futured language, a person who speaks a futureless language at home is 8 percent more likely to support environmental protection and 17 percent more likely to have saved money in the previous year.
In short, our results produce a simple punchline: the presence or absence of future tense in a language significantly affects the extent to which speakers discount the future and support future-oriented policies. Even as we write this, mass publics throughout the globe are considering political choices involving short-term costs for long-term gains. These are, without a doubt, complex decisions. Yet our results suggest a basic lesson: some people, some of the time, will find it harder to support such efforts simply because of the language they use to entertain those choices.
About the Authors: Efrén Pérez is associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. Margit Tavits is professor of political science at Washington University in Saint Louis. Their article “Language Shapes People’s Time Perspective and Support for Future-Oriented Policies” is forthcoming at the American Journal of Political Science and is currently available for Early View.