Language affects our understanding of time

language affects our understanding of timeThere’s a decades-old argument among language scientists. Universalists say that the physical world and our perception of it shape all languages. Relativists say the opposite. That each language shapes our understanding of the world. A recent study tips the scale in favour of the latter view. So, not only do languages shape multiple personalities. According to the research, our language affects our understanding of time. Which means that English and, say, Japanese speakers experience time differently.

We have two linguists to thank for. Prof. Panos Athanasopoulos, a linguist from Lancaster University and Prof. Emanuel Bylund, a linguist from Stellenbosch University and Stockholm University. Their experiment was published in ‘Journal of Experimental Psychology: General’ a little more than a week ago. They found that people speaking different native languages think about time differently. That’s because the way each person estimates the duration of events depends on their language usage.

understanding time different viewsLinguists already knew that different languages use different metaphors for time. For example, English and Swedish speakers describe time as a physical distance (short break, long wedding). On the contrary, Spanish speakers use physical quantities to describe time (small break, big wedding). Does saying “short break” mean that the speaker understands passed time as distance covered? This study explains it perfectly.


To prove how much language affects our understanding of time they thought of a brilliant plan. They tested bilinguals. That is people who could speak two languages at a native level and easily switch between them. The experiment was based on this ability, also called code-switching.

language shapes our time perceptionHere’s how it went. The bilinguals were watching lines stretching across multiple screens. At the same time, they could see containers filling up with liquid. Professors asked the participants to say how much time had passed on two occasions. They prompted the bilinguals with different words. Firstly, with ‘duración’. Secondly, with ‘tid’. They both mean ‘time’ in Spanish and Swedish respectively. Of course, the purpose of it was to activate a certain language system.

Then, everything became clear.

When watching containers with Spanish in mind, bilinguals estimated time on how full the containers were. The growing lines didn’t matter to them. Alternatively, when watching the same containers and lines with Swedish in mind, they changed their minds. Now they described time according to the lines. Containers played no part in their perception.

So, switching between languages also shifted their understanding of time. On one occasion they thought of time as volume. On the other, time as a distance.


As you can see, language affects our understanding of time. It’s not just different words. On the contrary, what matters is the measure we choose. It forces us to choose a metaphor that is closest to our understanding. So, language shapes our mind and mind affects how we use language.

This means that not only can bilinguals switch between languages. They can also switch between different views of time and maybe even more. The same might be true for all of the reality. It’s a proof that language creeps into our most basic senses. Aside from time, this includes emotions, visual perception and other aspects of our conscience.

Prof. Athanasopoulos explains it as simply as possible.

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

time perception language study researchSo, the fact that bilinguals can shift their perspective in such ways makes learning foreign languages very beneficial. Most of all, it’s a benefit to one’s health and cognitive abilities. Bilinguals are more flexible thinkers because they gain multiple perspectives on the same things. Or, as we’ve said before, different pairs of glasses to see the world through.

On top of that, it was proved many times that switching between different languages every day gives other advantages. It makes it easier to learn. It boosts your ability to multi-task. Also, it improves health and mental well-being.

So, wait no more and improve the quality of your life!