It turns out, Hollywood got it half right. In the film Arrival, Amy Adams plays linguist Louise Banks who is trying to decipher an alien language. She discovers the way the aliens talk about time gives them the power to see into the future – so as Banks learns their language, she also begins to see through time. As one character in the movie says: “Learning a foreign language rewires your brain.”
My new study – which I worked on with linguist Emanuel Bylund – shows that bilinguals do indeed think about time differently, depending on the language context in which they are estimating the duration of events. But unlike Hollywood, bilinguals sadly can’t see into the future. However, this study does show that learning a new way to talk about time really does rewire the brain. Our findings are the first psycho-physical evidence of cognitive flexibility in bilinguals.
We have known for some time that bilinguals go back and forth between their languages rapidly and often unconsciously – a phenomenon called code-switching. But different languages also embody different worldviews and different ways of organising the world around us. The way that bilinguals handle these different ways of thinking has long been a mystery to language researchers.
Time, imagination and language
Time is a case in point. Time is fascinating because it is very abstract. We cannot touch or see it but we organise our whole lives around it. The really cool thing about time is the way we actually experience it is in some ways up to our imagination and our language. Because time is so abstract, the only way to talk about it is by using the terminology from another, more concrete domain of experience, namely that of space. For example, in Swedish, the word for future is framtid which literally means “front time”. Visualising the future as in front of us (and the past as behind us) is also very common in English. We look forward to the good times ahead and to leaving the past behind us.
But for speakers of Aymara (spoken in Peru), looking ahead means looking at the past. The word for future (qhipuru) means “behind time” – so the spatial axis is reversed: the future is behind, the past is ahead. The logic in Aymara appears to be this: we can’t look into the future just like we can’t see behind us. The past is already known to us, we can see it just like anything else that appears in our field of vision, in front of us.