New research suggests that language plays a major role in our perception of time.
And if you speak multiple languages, you experience time very differently than your monolingual friends.
The study in question was written by Professor Panos Athanasopoulos, a linguist from Lancaster University and Professor Emanuel Bylund, a linguist from Stellenbosch University and Stockholm University. It was reported in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, a journal published by the American Psychological Association.
The researchers asked Spanish-Swedish bilinguals to watch a container being filled or a line growing across the same screen. The participants were prompted with a word—either “duración,” the Spanish word for “duration”) or “tid,” the Swedish word for duration—then asked to estimate how much time had passed during the experiment.
Bilingual participants who were prompted with the Spanish word based their estimates off of the fullness of the containers, ignoring the line. Participants who were prompted with the Swedish word would focus on the growing lines.
So, what’s the significance?
“By learning a new language, you suddenly become attuned to perceptual dimensions that you weren’t aware of before,” Professor Athanasopoulos told Science Daily.
“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.”
“But it also shows that bilinguals are more flexible thinkers, and there is evidence to suggest that mentally going back and forth between different languages on a daily basis confers advantages on the ability to learn and multi-task and even long-term benefits for mental well-being.”
In other words, bilinguals go back and forth between their languages, sometimes choosing a lingual base subconsciously in order to match the needs of the situation.
In different languages, time is relayed differently; in some cases, it’s shown as a unit of space, but in others, it’s treated as more of a physical substance. In any case, the way that we perceive time is closely tied to our language.
Bilinguals benefit from the ability to switch between languages, but can you become bilingual?
You may have heard that you can only become a “true” bilingual if you acquire both languages during the so-called sensitive period of childhood—the time when your brain first starts to acquire language skills.
It’s true that you’re more likely to attain fluency in two languages if you start early, but many researchers downplay the importance of this sensitive period.
“I have known bilinguals who have acquired their second language at age 15 and have no accent in it,” wrote Francois Grosjean for Psychology Today. “As for other skills, the window is not as clearly marked and acquisition can take place at any time.”
In other words, if you’re hoping to enjoy the time-bending benefits of becoming bilingual, there’s still a chance, regardless of your age, if you’re willing to put in the effort.
To put it another way, you have, ahem, the time.