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When it Comes to Health, Language may Rule You

thankyou-many-languagesWhat if the very grammar rules you were taught in grade school were shaping your wellness and that of your company or community? Working with leaders from many cultures around the planet, I often find myself investigating the personal, workplace, and societal inclinations which foster true health (or negate it). But lately I’ve been wondering: can the structure of our very language impact our propensity to choose wellbeing in our lives and work?

The Yale School of Management’s Dr. M. Keith Chen asked that very question. And it led to his fascinating study (click here to view PDF) which highlights the link between our language and our health. According to Chen, people who speak certain languages are more apt than others to exercise, save money for retirement, and follow lifestyles that set up a positive foundation for the future. As his study reports, however, it isn’t so much what these people say, but the language rules from which they say it. Who knew those universally loathed laws of verb conjugation could be so powerful?

Some languages, such as English and Russian, have what Chen calls a “strong” future-time-reference (FTR), meaning they make a clear distinction between the present and the future. In English, whether I say “I am going to the market” or “I will go to the market,” you know whether I’ll take the action now or later. By contrast, the grammatical structure of languages with “weak” FTR (say, Mandarin or German) blurs the line between today and tomorrow.

Chen analyzed the syntax of languages against global research about health practices, retirement and savings behaviors, and national wealth. Truly startling findings surfaced: People from nations speaking weak-FTR languages were more likely to adhere to preventive lifestyles! These people were: “24 percent less likely to have smoked heavily, 29 percent more likely to exercise regularly, and 13 percent less likely to be obese. The weak-FTR speakers even had stronger grips and great[er] lung capacity than did those whose grammar forced them to mark the difference between today and tomorrow.”

No surprise that this remarkable correlation impacted the nation’s financial health, too. As Chen said, “Countries with weak-FTR languages save on average six percent more of their GDP per year than their strong-FTR counterparts.”

As a strategist who helps organizations and communities learn to operate as cultures of wellbeing, I definitely don’t think language rules are the only things influencing our behaviors for health and prevention. Now that would truly be depressing! After all, I speak English, one of those “why-eat-well-today-when-I-can-start-tomorrow” tongues.

What’s more interesting to me is the valuable line of inquiry toward which Chen’s insights point. His work reminds me to ask: What underlying values or drives are shaping our choices? Whether I’m working with a leader, a company, or an entire community, I see now that the underpinnings of attitudes toward health and wellbeing may trace clear back to our kindergarten language lessons. I say it’s never too late to deepen our learning, throw out a few grammar rules, and focus on our wellbeing: now and for the future.

Photo by woodleywonderworks