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How language affects our sense of time

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A new study shows that bilingual people perceive time differently.
Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images
A new study shows that bilingual people perceive time differently.
K nowing another language has its fair share of advantages. Beyond easily ordering a drink on holiday, it can open up doors for employment and ease relationship-making. New research now suggests that there are deeper benefits: being bilingual increases your ability to learn and multi-task and can even provide long-term improvements to mental well-being. The research is the first of its kind to record so-called “cognitive flexibility” in people.
The joint study by two linguists, Professor Panos Athanasopoulos of Lancaster University and Professor Emanuel Bylund from Stellenbosch and Stockholm University, discovered that people who speak more than one language think about time differently, depending on the linguistic context in which they are experiencing an event.
The study suggests that different languages embody different worldviews, i.e. how we organise the world around us depends on our mother-tongue. For example, Greek and Spanish speakers generally mark the passing of time by referring to physical quantities, such as a small wedding or a big break; time is perceived as a form of volume. Swedish and English speakers, however, prefer to mark the duration of events by referring to physical distances, e.g. a short break or a long wedding, meaning the passage of time is perceived as distance travelled.
In the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Spanish-Swedish bilinguals were asked to estimate how much time had passed while watching either a line growing across a screen or a container being filled. Participants were prompted with either the word duración (Spanish for duration) or tid (the Swedish word for duration). 
Interestingly, the results showed that participants responded depending on their language of cue: Swedish prompts triggered answers in distance, while a Spanish prompt word led to a response referring to physical quantities, time as volume. 
"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,” said Professor Athanasopoulos.
Kaspar Loftin
The World Weekly
04 May 2017 - last edited 04 May 2017