The Language You Speak Changes Your Perception of Time

Perception is a tricky thing. While you might think you're seeing the world as it is, many elements are conspiring to alter the way you perceive things, from the chemicals in your brain to the influence of the people around you. Also? The language you speak. Research suggests that speaking a second language could help you think more rationally and even change your personality. In 2017, a study added one more piece to the language puzzle: The language you speak literally changes your perception of time.

The Long and Short of It

When we talk about duration of time in English, we refer to it by length: life is short, that was a long day. Swedish, by the way, does that too. But if you were to speak Spanish, you'd refer to time by size or volume: there is much time (mucho tiempo) or little time (poco tiempo); time isn't long or short. For a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology General, scientists recruited Spanish speakers, Swedish speakers, and Spanish-Swedish bilinguals to determine whether this difference had any effect on their perception of time.

They showed the participants two videos and asked them to estimate how much time had passed after watching them. One video depicted a container filling up with liquid. The other video depicted a line growing longer. The bilinguals performed this task in both of their languages. For every volunteer, bilinguals included, the language they used made all the difference.

When they watched the container fill up, Swedish speakers had no problem estimating the amount of time it took, whether the container started at completely full or half full. But Spanish speakers tended to estimate more time had passed when the container was fuller. Likewise, Spanish speakers correctly estimated that the line took three seconds to grow no matter its length, but the Swedish speakers thought more time had passed if the line grew 6 inches instead of 4. The fact that the same thing happened with bilinguals shows that this difference wasn't cultural — it was all about the language.

Perspective Through Your Tongue

This is a fascinating look into how the way we speak affects the way we think, and therefore affects the way we see the world. In an interview with Mic, study co-author Panos Athanasopoulos called on pop culture as a way to explain the phenomenon: "Athanasopoulos compared it to Arrival, a 2016 film about a linguist (played by Amy Adams) who tries to decipher an alien language. In the movie, the way the aliens talk about time gives them the superpower of seeing into the future — so, as Adams begins to understand their language, she also sees what's next."

"Basically, [bilingualism] makes you aware that there are different perspectives out there and it makes you more flexible in adopting those perspectives," Athanasopoulos said. Maybe it's a good idea to take those language lessons after all, eh? You might not see into the future, but you could see the world in a whole new way.

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Find out more about how your brain treats language in the MIT Press book "Language in Our Brain: The Origins of a Uniquely Human Capacity" by Angela D. Friederici, with a foreword by Noam Chomsky. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer May 22, 2017

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