The Language You Speak Affects How You Perceive Time

Language and perception of time are more linked than you may think.  JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Scientists have explored the concept of time in countless ways, but what about how time relates to one’s lingo? According to a recent study, the language you speak may affect your perception of the passage of time.

Swedish and English speakers tend to refer to time by distance, noting a walk, for instance, as short or long. Greek and Spanish speakers tend to reference time by volume, so a walk would be small or big. And bilinguals can switch quickly between languages, often subconsciously.

The researchers in charge of the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, observed the responses of 40 Swedish speaker and 40 Spanish speakers to both a container filling and a line growing across a screen. The aim was to test participants’ perception of time by distance (the line growing) and by volume (the container filling). Not sure if either test was more exciting than watching grass grow, though.

Via computer animation, the line either grew to, say, four inches or to six inches. The span of time was only three seconds for both lengths, but the key measurement was how much time each group thought had passed. The Swedish speakers thought that more time had passed when the line was longer, while the Spanish speakers determined that three seconds had flown by, regardless of line growth. These results line up with the way each group speaks about time — Swedish speakers’ estimates were off because they tend to measure time by distance.

And the outcome was similar for the container test: Swedish speakers easily estimated time passage regardless of whether the container was full or half full, but the Spanish speakers believed more time had passed when the container was fuller.

To test the effect of any other variables besides language, the researchers conducted a similar experiment with 74 Spanish-Swedish bilinguals. Only this time, participants were prompted to estimate the passage of time with the word for “duration” either in Spanish (duración) or in Swedish (tid). The researchers found that the patterns still conformed to preferred expressions of duration — Spanish cues made it hard for participants to guess the correct amount of time it took the container to fill, while Swedish cues made it difficult for them to guess the time it took the line to grow. The bilinguals breezed through the experiment when their ability to accurately estimate duration wasn’t hampered by language context.

The bilinguals demonstrated a heightened level of cognitive flexibility, or the ability to shift thoughts among different concepts. According to a Lancaster University press release, their capacity to switch quickly between their spoken languages, often subconsciously, shows not only how language impacts emotions, visual perception and sense of time, but also how switching between languages has benefits for learning, multitasking and overall well-being. But how exactly this perceptual advantage affects bilinguals? Only time will tell.


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