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Languages influence perception of time

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by Claudia Civinini

How you perceive time depends on the language you speak, a new study suggests.

The research adds to growing evidence that shows ‘the ease with which language can creep into our most basic senses, including our emotion and our visual perception’, researchers said.

In an experiment on Swedish-Spanish bilinguals, linguists Professor Panos Athanasopoulos and Professor Emanuel Bylund observed that participants understood time duration differently according to the language they used.

Swedish marks duration by referring to distance, as in a ‘short’ break, whereas Spanish prefers quantity, for example a ‘small’ break. Participants were presented with a screen showing a container slowly filling up and a graphic of lines growing to signal the passing of time.

When participants were asked in Spanish to estimate how much time had gone by, they referred to the container filling up. But when asked in Swedish, their perception of time duration was more influenced by the lines growing.

The results suggest that languages influence an individual’s concept of time. ‘By learning a new language, you suddenly become attuned to perceptual dimensions that you weren’t aware of before,’ Professor Athanasopoulos explained.