In one study, Chinese-English bilinguals were asked to arrange pictures of a young, mature, and old Brad Pitt and Jet Li. They arranged the former horizontally, with the young Brad Pitt to the left and the old Brad Pitt to the right. But the same people arranged the pictures of Jet Li vertically, with young Jet Li appearing at the top and old Jet Li appearing at the bottom. It seems that culture and meaning form a tight bond as this context-dependent shift in behaviour shows.
Our study showed that these language differences have psycho-physical effects in the bilingual mind: they alter the way the same individual experiences the passage of time depending on the language context they are operating in. For example, Swedish and English speakers prefer to mark the duration of events by referring to physical distances – a short break, a long party. But Greek and Spanish speakers tend to mark time by referring to physical quantities – a small break, a big party. Speakers of English and Swedish see time as a horizontal line, as distance travelled. But Spanish and Greek speakers see it as quantity, as volume taking up space.
As a consequence, English and Swedish monolinguals estimate how much time it takes for lines to lengthen across a computer screen based on how far the lines expand. If two lines stretch to different lengths over the same time period, participants judge the shorter line to have travelled for less time than it actually did and the longer line to have travelled for more time than it actually did. Spanish and Greek monolinguals on the other hand are affected in their time estimations by physical quantity – how much a container has filled with liquid. If two containers fill up to different levels over the same time period, participants judge the container with the smaller amount to have filled in less time than it actually did and vice versa.
But Spanish-Swedish bilinguals are flexible. When prompted with the Swedish word for duration (tid), they estimated time using line length. They were unaffected by container volume. When prompted with the Spanish word for duration (duración), they estimated time based on container volume. They were unaffected by line length. It seems that by learning a new language, you suddenly become attuned to perceptual dimensions that you weren’t aware of before.
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.
So, to refer back (or is it forward?) to Arrival. It’s never too late to learn a second language. You will not see into the future, but you’ll definitely see things differently.