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Bilingual People Can Change How They Experience Time

05/04/2017 10:40 EDT | Updated 05/04/2017 10:43 EDT

New research has revealed another powerful effect that language can have on the brain, finding that the language we speak can influence the way we experience time.

Carried out by Professor Panos Athanasopoulos, a linguist from Lancaster University, U.K., and Professor Emanuel Bylund, a linguist from Stellenbosch University and Stockholm University, Sweden, the study is the first to find evidence of cognitive flexibility in people who speak two languages.

Although bilinguals easily and quickly switch between their two languages without even thinking about it (a phenomenon called code-switching), it is not just a matter of switching to a different language for communication — different languages influence the way we think about the world around us.

The study found that people who speak two languages fluently think about time differently depending on the language they are using when estimating the duration of an event.

The research team explain that for example, Swedish and English speakers prefer to mark the duration of events by referring to a physical distance such as a short break, or a long wedding, with the passage of time perceived as distance traveled.

Greek and Spanish speakers on the other hand, prefer to mark the duration of events by referring to physical quantities, such as a small break, a big wedding, with the passage of time perceived as volume.

For the research the team recruited Spanish-Swedish bilinguals, whose two languages look at time differently.

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

Participants were asked to watch either a line growing across a screen, or a container being filled, and estimate how much time had passed.

At the same time as watching they were either prompted with the word 'duración' — Spanish for duration — or 'tid' — Swedish for duration.

The results showed a clear difference between the two languages.

When watching containers filling up and prompted in Spanish, participants based their time estimates on how full the containers were, not by the lines growing on screens, suggesting that they perceived time as volume.

However, when given participants were prompted in Swedish, participants based their time estimates on lines growing on screens, suggesting that they perceived time as distance traveled.

"By learning a new language, you suddenly become attuned to perceptual dimensions that you weren't aware of before," commented Professor Athanasopoulos.

"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 results can be found online published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

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