Language can influence the way in which we experience time, say scientists who found that people estimate the duration of events differently depending on the language they use.
For example, Swedish and English speakers prefer to mark the duration of events by referring to physical distances – a short break, a long wedding, etc. The passage of time is perceived as distance travelled, researchers said.
However, Greek and Spanish speakers tend to mark time by referring to physical quantities – a small break, a big wedding. The passage of time is perceived as growing volume.
Bilinguals go back and forth between their languages rapidly and often, unconsciously – a phenomenon called code-switching.
Researchers, including those from Lancaster University in the UK, asked Spanish-Swedish bilinguals to estimate how much time had passed while watching either a line growing across a screen or a container being filled.
At the same time, participants were prompted with either the word ‘duracion’ (the Spanish word for duration) or ‘tid’ (the Swedish word for duration).
Researchers found that when watching containers filling up and prompted by the Spanish prompt word, bilinguals based their time estimates of how full the containers were, perceiving time as volume. They were unaffected by the lines growing on screens.
Conversely, when given the Swedish prompt word, bilinguals suddenly switched their behaviour, with their time estimates becoming influenced by the distance the lines had traveled, but not by how much the containers had filled.
“By learning a new language, you suddenly become attuned to perceptual dimensions that you were not aware of before,” said Panos Athanasopoulos, professor at Lancaster University.
“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,” Athanasopoulos said.
“It also shows that bilinguals are more flexible thinkers and there is evidence to suggest that mentally going back and forth between different languages on a daily basis confers advantages on the ability to learn and multi-task, and even long term benefits for mental well-being,” he said.
The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.