Being bilingual makes you experience time differently

Understanding time through the bilingual mind.
Understanding time through the bilingual mind.
Image: Reuters/Francois Guillot
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A new study shows that the words we use to talk about time also shape our view of its passage. This, say researchers, indicates that abstract concepts like duration are relative rather than universal, and that they are also influenced rather than solely innate.

The work, published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General on April 27, examined how Spanish- and Swedish-speaking bilinguals conceived of time. The researchers—from University of Stockholm in Sweden and the University of Lancaster in the UK—found that their subjects, 40 of whom were native Swedish speakers and 40 of whom were native Spanish speakers—tended to think about time in terms that correspond to each language’s descriptors when linguistically prompted in that particular language but moved fluidly from one concept of time to another generally. This was true regardless of their native language.

Different languages describe time differently. For example, Swedish and English generally refer to time according to physical distance (“a long time,” “a short break”). Meanwhile, languages like Spanish or Greek, say, refer to time in volume generally (“a big chunk of time,” “a small moment”).

In the study, subjects were shown a line growing on a computer screen and asked to estimate the passage of time; simultaneously they watched a container filling with water.  These two activities correspond to Swedish and Spanish notions of time as distance and volume respectively. Each subjects was once prompted with the word “duration” in Swedish (tid), and once in Spanish—(duracion). After each, they were asked to estimate how much time passed and described the activity using either notion of duration.

The researchers found that the perceptions of time associated with a given language influenced thinking when a linguistic cue was provided in that same language. So when the prompt word was in Spanish, subjects perceived of time as volume. But when prompted in Swedish, they talked about time as a measure of distance instead. Both the line on the screen and the water filling the container occurred simultaneously but the linguistic cue influenced the viewer’s description.

That said, the bilingual speakers were able to conceive of duration as both distance, like in Swedish, and volume, as in Spanish, and could switch between these different perceptions. The two views of time were not mutually exclusive but existed simultaneously and were perceived by the speakers of both languages. That, the researchers say, gave them a more flexible way of thinking about time overall.

“By learning a new language, you suddenly become attuned to perceptual dimensions that you weren’t aware of before,” explains study co-author Panos Athanasopoulos. “The fact that bilinguals go between these different ways of estimating time effortlessly and unconsciously fits in with a growing body of evidence demonstrating the ease with which language can creep into our most basic senses, including our emotions, our visual perception, and now it turns out, our sense of time.”

This, Athanasopoulos says, suggests that going back and forth between different languages builds up mental muscle generally. This could make it easier for multi-linguals to learn other things as well. In any case, flexing these cognitive muscles creates a new view of time that they would not have had speaking one language.

Emmanuel Bylund, lead researcher on the study, believes the results show that brains are shaped by language and context, and that abstract concepts, like time, aren’t just universally understood the same way by all humans, as language universalists theorize. Rather, he says, comprehension is relative, malleable, and highly context-specific. The results, he says, align with an emerging view of the human mind as a computational system; added languages provide added information processing power to the brain.

This is heartening news not just for polyglots but also for monolinguals looking to up their cognitive processing power. The results of this work indicate that brains are adaptable and that by learning new things—like a new language—anyone can increase cognitive flexibility.