Linguistic relativity

Linguistic relativity

How language affects economic behavior has been hotly discussed of late, primarily due to an unpublished paper from Yale economist Keith Chen on the same:

Chen […] thinks that if your language has clear grammatical future tense marking […], then you and your fellow native speakers have a dramatically increased likelihood of exhibiting high rates of obesity, smoking, drinking, debt, and poor pension provision. And conversely, if your language uses present-tense forms to express future time reference […], you and your fellow speakers are strikingly more likely to have good financial planning for retirement and sensible health habits. It is as if grammatical marking of the difference between the present and the future insulates you from seeing that the two are coterminous so you should plan ahead. Using present-tense forms for future time reference, on the other hand, encourages you to see that the future is just more of the present, and thus encourages you to put money in a 401(k).

A potentially exciting correlation. (As designers, I believe we seek these correlations and assumptions often.) But is it? Geoff Pullum respectfully reviews Chen’s work and pointedly points out what concerns him. His greatest concern:

None of these briefly summarized worries about Chen’s work, however, disturb me as much as the appalling journalistic misrepresentations that David Berreby offers us. His title is: “Obese? Smoker? No Retirement Savings? Perhaps It’s Because of the Language You Speak.”

A lesson for any designer who synthesizes user research to inform design.