The ABC of ELT

Is English a “futured” language?

I’ve talked about this video a few times over the last few weeks and I have a question that I hope some more knowledgeable English teachers can help with. This is a TED video by Keith Chen who suggests that our Language might impact if countries are better or worse savers. Take a look


In the video Keith suggests that English is a “futured” language and so we disconnect the future from the present…but we don’t really have a future tense in English, do we.

After all we can use present continuous (and even present simple) to talk about the future and we can use the modal verb “will” (which is often confused as future tense) for the present to work out where someone is based on their regular habits.

In fact, the Keith gives some examples of ways to talk about the future (using the example of the possibility of rain tomorrow, which is of course only one situation for talking about the future and doesn’t included “plans” or “arrangements”) and includes using present continuous which is also commonly used for talking about…the present.

However, expressing the future is different in other languages.

In Russian there are certain verbs that can only be used for the past or the future (as they denote complete actions. Certain verbs can’t be used for the present. However, it is also possible to add another verb to change other verbs to speak about the future as well.

Spanish seems very similar to English (in that you can use “going to” to talk about the future) but there are differences. There is a way to conjugate verbs that only [as far as my limited level in Spanish] talks about the future and is the equivalent of “will” (if any better Spanish speakers want to correct me here then I’d be more than happy to change this statement)

I would guess that both of these languages would be considered to be “futured” languages as the way of speaking about the future is different from the present. However, English seems to have much more overlap between ways to talk about the future and the present.

So what do you think? How different is talking about the future and present in English? Do you think this can affect the way you save?

About Chris Wilson

I'm an English Language teacher based in Krakow, Poland. I enjoy writing, using technology and playing the Ukulele.

5 Replies

  1. hi chris

    have you read the posts on language log related to this? very interesting if a bit hard going at times. the classification that Chen bases his work is very enlightening if agaiin very hard going for us classroom based teachers, well for me anyway!

    The grammar of future time reference in European languages –


    1. I hadn’t mura but I did come across this great link via Anne H which basically pointed out that the logic of the argument might not be as strong as you think (even if the evidence for a correlation is there)

  2. This goes back to Whorf (hope am spelling the name right) try to find some of his work

    The question this TEDster is posing is not a new one – but sounds new to this type of audience. Is language thought expressive only or thought-forming as well? Do our words come from our thoughts or the thoughts from the words

    Interesting question – although the research is not conclusive, instinctively, I believe the latter is a powerful theory – which is why when you learn a foreign language, you learn new ways of thinking and the new language further shapes your thoughts and attitudes

    (my two cents)

    1. My personal experience has been similar. When I speak in Russian I adopt a slightly different personality and certainly some feels conjure Russian words more than English words.

      But maybe that is only for certain people who take on a different mindset when speaking a language rather than “just translating”.

      It is an interesting theory…I’d love to find out more about it. Do you know any other links on it?

  3. Pullam (a language Log bod) in his latest Chronicle article seems less sure now

    Chen maybe onto something but also he may not hehe 🙂 There’s a more nuanced approach here apparently

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