ULG’s Language Solutions Blog

Bilingual Speakers Able to Perceive Time Differently, Study Says




How much time has passed since you clicked on this article and began reading?

Depending on how many languages you speak, your answer may vary. That’s according to a new study published late last month that looks at the effect language has on our perception of time.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found that bilingual speakers were able to perceive time differently based on the language context they were working within.

The research showcases bilingual speakers’ ability to toggle between different perceptions held in the languages they speak.

Attuned To New ‘Perceptual Dimensions’

Those who speak Swedish and English use terms like ‘short’ or ‘long’ to denote time, while Spanish speakers refer to time with terms like ‘small’ or ‘big,’ using quantity to specify the amount of time passed.

In the study, researchers asked Spanish-Swedish bilingual participants to estimate how much time has passed while either looking at a line growing on a screen or a container being filled. The researchers also either used the phrase duración, meaning duration in Spanish, or tid, meaning duration in Swedish, when asking for participants’ feedback.

The study found that when they were prompted with the Spanish word for duration, bilingual speakers estimated how much time had passed based on the container being filled. Conversely, when asked for their estimates in Swedish, they made their predictions based on the line.

What the study shows, researchers say, is that bilingual speakers’ ability to switch between different perceptions of time displays an ability to be more flexible in their cognition.

“By learning a new language, you suddenly become attuned to perceptual dimensions that you weren’t aware of before,” says Professor Panos Athanasopoulos, a linguist who was involved in the study.

“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.”

The Benefits of Bilingualism

We’ve talked about the benefits of being bilingual before, and more recently we looked at whether language can affect cognition.

More and more, growing evidence seems to suggest that bilingual speakers not only have more malleable cognitive capacities, but also a more nuanced outlook on reality than those who only speak in their mother tongue.

With that in mind, it’s probably not a bad idea to pick up that old copy of Rosetta Stone or download a language learning app.



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