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Your Perception Of Time And Space Is Radically Altered By The Language You Speak

Do you often imagine time moving from left to right? Not all cultures do.

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Tom Hale

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Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

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Some psycholinguists argue that our mental representations of time are influenced – perhaps even bound – by language.

Image credit: Renel Wackett/Unsplash

Picture a flow diagram of a human aging through numerous stages of their life, from baby to toddler then child and teen to adult and elderly person. Chances are, you imagined the youngest person on the left and the eldest on the right. This might seem like the “natural” way to order things, but not everyone will necessarily agree with you. 

Some studies have shown that people who use a written system arranged from left to right – like English and many other languages – tend to lay out time as proceeding from left to right when thinking abstractly, while people who read text arranged from right to left – like Arabic, Hebrew, and others – arrange time from right to left.

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Likewise, some researchers have argued that people who read vertical writing in East Asian scripts can often imagine time to flow downwards vertically, although you’ll find some researchers who argue this isn’t strictly true. 

Another example is the language spoken by Pormpuraaw, a remote Australian Aboriginal community, which doesn’t use the words “left” or “right” at all. Instead, they use “north”, “south”, “east”, and “west". Research has indicated stories told by the Pormpuraaw using a flow of time that seems very unfamiliar to us: time flows from left to right when one is facing south, from right to left when one is facing north, toward the body when one is facing east, and away from the body when one is facing west.

Some psycholinguists argue that our mental representations of time are influenced, perhaps bound, by language.

These ideas are similar to the one explored in the 2016 sci-fi film Arrival, in which humanity struggles to communicate with a mysterious alien species that’s suddenly landed on Earth. Through understanding the extraterrestrial “language”, the humans eventually realize the aliens don’t have a linear perception of time, which effectively allows them to experience the future.

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The movie deals with some pretty far-out ideas that require some artistic license, but the fascinating linguistic themes in the film are not far divorced from reality.

A fascinating example is whether we perceive the future as ahead of us or behind us. In most languages, the past is explained as something behind us, while the future is ahead of us. However, for South America's Indigenous Aymara people, their language indicates that the past is ahead of them and the future behind.

The English language has its own confusing elements like this. If you heard the phrase "Wednesday's meeting was moved forward two days," does that mean the new meeting is on Friday or Monday? Polls suggest roughly half of people will say Friday and the other half Monday, depending on whether they imagine themselves in motion relative to time or time itself as moving.

In 2017, linguists carried out a study that suggested bilingual speakers can think about time differently depending on the language they employ. In languages like English and Swedish, people tend to use physical distances to explain the duration of events, such as a “short break” or a “long holiday”. 

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Conversely, Greek and Spanish speakers tend to measure time by referring to physical quantities, such as a “small break” or a “big holiday”. The flow of time is perceived as a growing volume, rather than a distance traveled.

Things become trickier with bilingual speakers. If a person spoke both Greek and English, for instance, they would switch up how they explained the movement of time depending on the language in which they were asked about it. 

“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,” Professor Panos Athanasopoulos, a linguist from Lancaster University who authored the study, explained in a statement

This field of study fits under into bracket of linguistic relativity, aka the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which posits that the language a person speaks can influence or shape their perception of the world and their cognitive processes. There are many critics of linguistic relativism and you’ll find plenty of counter-arguments against it. 

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Nevertheless, exploring these ideas is a good way to challenge your preconceptions and remind yourself that your way of seeing the world isn’t necessarily set in stone.


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