Language and Time: How Language Affects Our Time Perception

It seems as if we are always worried about time, especially in western society, where we are constantly pressured to do more, more quickly. However, a study published late last year actually found that bilinguals perceive time differently depending on the language they are thinking or speaking in. It turns out that the language we speak greatly influences the way that our brain perceives time.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology by the American Psychological Association reported the first evidence of cognitive flexibility in bilinguals. Bilinguals tend to code-switch – that is, switch rapidly between (or among, if more languages are spoken) the languages they think, operate and communicate in on a daily basis. Switching among languages, however, doesn’t just entail the language being spoken or used, it also means a complete shift in worldview!

Universalist accounts of time posit that all humans construct their mental representations of the passage of time in a similar way. However, the concept of linguistic relativity proposes that different languages inherently mean there are different constructs of space and time. When I say in Spanish ‘’I’ll see you soon’’ (‘’hasta ahora’’), it does not translate the same in English. ‘’Hasta ahora’’ in Spanish means, ‘’I’ll see you soon’’ sometime in the unforeseeable future, whereas in English it generally would mean in under an hour. In the western world, we tend to think of time as something expanding ahead of us – a vacuum that will be filled with the myriad tasks we are required to perform. While in Madagascar, for example, time is mentally visualized as flowing into the back of your head from behind you. And we well know in Europe that despite having similar western concepts of time, when you ask a Spaniard or a Greek to show up for dinner, you better have cocktails on hand for your German friends!

In order to test the hypothesis that language in fact influences how people think of time, linguists Professor Panos Athanasopoulos and Professor Emanuel Bylund asked native Swedish speakers who were also fluent in Spanish to estimate the passing of time while watching a line growing across a screen or a container being filled. When participants were asked the question using the Spanish word duración (duration), estimates were adjusted when observing a container being filled, but not when a line was growing. Conversely, when the Swedish word tid (time) was used, participants adjusted their estimate when watching a line grow, but not when observing a container being filled.

What does this mean? Well, for starters, time is it self a mental construct whether we perceive of it in the same way as others or not. We can follow a clock in any language, but whether it holds sway over our daily routine, happiness, or urgency is a completely cultural matter that can be transmitted and learned. That the Swedish bilinguals shifted their perception of time depending on the language they were ‘’thinking’’ in means that language certainly plays a role in some of our most natural senses, including emotions, thoughts and even the sense of time.

Not only does learning another language make your life easier in general, and in many cases more enjoyable (you can watch more movies without any subtitles and enjoy music from all over the world!), but it can actually give you a completely new worldview and perspective, as this study shows. The ability to easily switch from one world view to another just by using a different word from a different ‘’code’’ means that we are indeed capable of completely understanding other cultures and perspectives, if we want to put in the effort.

As a Spanish company working with clients from all over Europe (and the world) we love to learn about the nuances that the languages we work in transmit across communication channels. We are constantly studying breakthroughs in the science of linguistics to be able to assist our clients to communicate with their customers most effectively. Our team of multilingual professionals is excited to learn about studies that add to the body of literature on how language is processed in the human brain. We look forward to bringing our expertise to your communication needs and we’re glad to know that we can adjust for cultural awareness just by switching the language we’re working in!