California Forum

How language influences the future

Special to The Bee

All families undergo transition. Our daughter is taking over the farm, and we are writing a book about succession and family. I age; she matures. Change is all about growing up.

Aging and learning are not linear. For example, when learning to farm, you don’t begin with a class on controlling the weather, then take a seminar on how to control the price of your produce. On our farm we explore work, life and family through stories and the seasons. We share insights about the art of pruning and the future of food. Yet, we don’t know the ending: Is this a comedy, tragedy or mystery?

But our use of language can frame the future. It is a predictor of how we make choices. The way we talk affects our judgments and decisions going forward. It simply has to do with the word “will.”

A behavioral economist, Keith Chen, wrote about personal financial saving rates in different countries and how attitudes about the future are tied to how languages are structured. In some countries and languages, vocabulary does not make a distinction between the present and the future.

For example, I speak some Japanese where there is no difference between “I go” vs. “I will go” – it’s the same word, “ikimasu.” However, with other languages, such as English, the speaker makes the grammatical distinction between the present and the future by adding terms such as “will.”

When people speak without a distinction between the present and future, it can alter how they feel about the future, according to Chen. Imagine saying, “I save money” instead of “I will save money.” The premise is that when the future is disassociated with the present, it’s harder to save money.

So Chen examined languages without future markers, such as German or Mandarin, and compared them to the national savings rates, and he found a correlation – more money is saved when the language doesn’t use the word “will.”

This may be an unconventional way of explaining monetary decisions, but follow-up studies seem to confirm this. For example, when signing up for a 401(k) retirement plan, subjects were shown a series of photos of people aging so they could imagine themselves years from now, and participation rates rose significantly. It’s not about “when we will get old” but rather “we age” and can see the worth of investing for the future in the present.

We might be motivated to act now instead of putting something off another day. We can see the impact of our choices today and the worth of future benefits in our daily life, not something tomorrow.

So as my daughter and I talk about her taking over our family business and I write about this experience, do we speak of the change happening now, or when she will step in to take over? Should I stop using “will take over” and focus on the present?

As our farm undergoes a transition, it’s hard not to dream of a future when everything is harmonious and balanced. Of course, I have my own vision of that future, and my daughter has her own vision – and they don’t always match. Instead, what if both futures are unfolding now, and the clashes are real and should be addressed now.

How we tell our stories matters. I want to live in the moment but not forsake the future. Writing about transition is messy and confusing; we all want nice, neat and tidy stories. But when I can see the future in the present, I’m better prepared, and I no longer fear change. Sometimes I even feel younger.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and award-winning author of books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.”