People Who Speak Two Languages Actually Experience Time Differently


Speaking more than one language is known to alter how people think, but now it has been found that bilingual people actually experience time in a different way.

A new study by Lancaster and Stockholm Universities has found that how people think about time depends on the language context in which they are estimating the duration of events.

Linguist professor Panos Athanasopoulos put it down to how people who are bilingual go back and forth between their languages on a subconscious level, and different languages refer to time differently.

For example, Swedish and English speakers tend to refer to physical distances such as ‘taking a short break’, whereas Spanish speakers would speak about time in the context of physical quantities and volume like ‘taking a small break’.

The study involved asking native Swedish speakers who also spoke Spanish to estimate how much time had passed while watching either a line going across a screen or a container being filled.

The participants were prompted to use the word ‘duracion’ (duration) or ‘tid’ (Swedish).

When they were prompted by Spanish words, the bilinguals based their estimates on volume relating to a container being filled, but when in Swedish, they gave estimates in distance.


Professor Athanasopoulos said:

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, visual perception, and now it turns out, sense of time.

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.


This research illustrates how we speak and what we say creeps into our everyday emotions and perceptions without us realising.

Bilingual people were described in the study as more ‘flexible thinkers’ than those who speak just one language.

Duolingo, come at me.