You experience time differently if you're bilingual

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Bilinguals have a more 'flexible' perception of time than us monolingual schlubs.

A new study published in the Journal of Experiment Psychology: General suggests that being bilingual can alter your perception of time - perceiving it more fluidly than people who only speak one language.

The study looked at Spanish-Swedish bilinguals, of whom 40 were native Swedish speakers and 40 were native Spanish speakers.

It's already known that time is described differently in different languages, shaping its conception.

For instance English and Swedish use terms that imply time is a distance. Something happened a 'long time' ago, the break was 'short'.

Comparatively Spanish and Greek describe units of time as a volume, such as 'big' chunk, or a 'small' moment.


Examining this, bilingual participants were shown a line growing on a computer screen, and simultaneously a video of a container filling with water.

They were then prompted to measure how much duration that had been in Swedish and Spanish respectively.

The two different linguistic prompts were found to match up with the appropriate concept (Swedish distance, and Spanish volume), and the participant described the duration using the matching concept.

It was the linguistic cue that appeared to influence the perception of time.

Bilingual brains

However, bilingual brains were found to be able to conceive of time in both concepts, simultaneously, and to easily switch between the two.

The researchers, a joint team from the University of Stockholm and the University of Lancaster, stated that therefore bilinguals had a more flexible way of thinking about time.

Co-Author Panos Athansopoulos was quoted in Quartz as saying:

By learning a new language, you suddenly become attuned to perceptual dimensions that you weren’t aware of before,

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.

It gives credence to one of the theories popularised by the 2016 sci-fi film Arrival, the 'Sapir–Whorf hypothesis'.

The 'Whorfian time warp' is explicitly mentioned in the team's paper, and refers to the idea that time is not a concept which is universally conceptualised in the same way, but is actually shaped by language.

HT Quartz

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