Trending Science: Bilinguals experience time differently from monolinguals

A new study has shown that bilingual people think about time differently depending on the language context in which they are estimating the duration of events.

Time. In today’s modern (and generally Western) world, it’s a common complaint that we never have any and that we’re always rushing against the clock to ensure that we fulfil the seemingly never-ending personal and professional commitments we’ve found ourselves locked into.

Moreover, there is no universally accepted concept of time. In the West, we generally view the future as stretching ahead of us. In Madagascar, time is seen as flowing into the back of your head from behind. And if you have ever invited friends from different cultures to a dinner party you probably know how important it is to circulate the drinks as you wait for everyone to turn up. In Europe, the perception of time and your relationship to it is generally influenced from which corner of the continent you come from.

A study recently published in the ‘Journal of Experimental Psychology’ has added a new layer to the already complicated debate concerning human existence and the concept of time. Undertaken by Lancaster University and Stockholm University, the study has shown how bilingual people have a markedly different concept of time compared to monolinguals.

Linguists Professor Panos Athanasopoulos and Professor Emanuel Bylund explained that bilinguals often go back and forth between their languages consciously and unconsciously. They also highlight how languages refer to time differently. For example, Swedish and English speakers refer to physical distances (‘Taking a short break’) while Spanish and Greek speakers refer to physical quantities and volume (‘taking a small break’). Also, many languages express time in two specific ways, one based on duration (‘temps’ in French, ‘tempo’ in Italian, ‘tijd’ in Dutch) but also time in the sense of repetition and quantity (‘fois’ in French, ‘volta’ in Italian, ‘keer’ in Dutch).

The researchers asked native Swedish speakers, who also spoke Spanish, to estimate how much time had passed whilst watching either a line growing across a screen or a container being filled. When they asked the question using the word ‘duración’ (Spanish for ‘duration’), participants adjusted their time estimates according to the volume in the container, but not the length of the line on their screen. When the word ‘tid’ (Swedish for ‘time’) was used, estimates were shaped by how long the line grew, but not by how much the containers were filled. In essence, despite our frenzied morning commutes or our 15-minute lunch breaks, our perception of the way time works is, in some ways, up to our culture and imagination.

‘Language can creep into our perception and basically make us experience time in a very language-specific way,’ commented Prof Athanasopoulos. ‘The fact that bilinguals go between these different ways of estimating time effortlessly and unconsciously fits in with the growing body of evidence demonstrating the ease with which language can creep into our most basic senses, including our emotions, visual perception, and now it turns out, sense of time.’

The study adds to the growing body of evidence that bilingualism provides enormously important neurological and psychological advantages. ‘Basically, [bilingualism] makes you aware that there are different perspectives out there and it makes you more flexible in adopting those perspectives,’ Athanasopoulos says. A second language forges more neural pathways (or connections) in the brain and can possibly help in staving off neurological disorders, such as dementia, as well as increasing your ability to multi-task and learn new skills.

last modification: 2017-05-12 17:15:01

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