How Language Can Shape The Perception Of Time

Not all cultures think of time in the same way, and many times language is tied into this perception.  It has often been a question amongst scholars whether or not language actually influences the way a person thinks, or if all people think the same way and just talk about it differently.  Several studies have been done that conclude that native language does have  an impact on how a person thinks and perceives the world.

One example is that of the perception of time.  Native English speakers tend to think of time in a linear fashion, and as extending before them (the future) and behind them (the past).  Interestingly, speakers of Mandarin Chinese think of time as above them and below them.  Speakers of Greek tend to think of lengths of time as “big” or “small” whereas English speakers think of time in measurements of distance (short, long, etc).

In a study by Lara Boroditsky English speakers were taught new ways of talking about time – such as using size or vertical metaphors to describe length of time.  After this their cognitive performance started to mimic that of native Greek and Mandarin speakers.

In a study done in the 1970’s, it was shown that English speakers think of time as left to right.  Arab speakers think of time as right to left.  Arab children learning English thought of time in both directions.

How might we perceive time if we did not have the language to describe it?  In an interesting experiment done, children who were born congenitally deaf and were “home-signers” (aka, did not learn structured American sign language and invented their own language and did not spontaneously invent signs for new locations) were shown a special marked card in a box with three cards in three spaces.  The children then had to locate the position of the card in a second, identical box where the card was placed in the same location.  It turns out that children who did not have proper language vocabulary (top, left, right, etc) and who only had their own language fared much more poorly in the experiment than hearing children who were exposed to the relevant spatial vocabulary.

Counting is another area where “home-signers” have difficulty, and this has shown that language is integral in counting larger numbers and doing math. (NY Times)

So if we had no language to count, and no language to describe time, how might we perceive it?  Perhaps quite differently than we do now.

This is extremely interesting to me, and in a way underlines the importance of cross-cultural cooperation in terms of science and the arts.  Perhaps a different perspective on time would help scientists solve certain theorems.  What if the puzzle of time travel were solved by someone who speaks a language that enunciates time in a different way?  Perhaps this is too simplistic of an idea, but I find the difference in perspective quite fascinating.

When thinking about it, it would seem to make sense that language has a strong pull on our perceptions.  After all, language is the only tool we seem to describe things to ourselves, and words become intertwined with the objects they describe.  Think about it: when you think of an object, you tend to think of it in terms of descriptive words, not feelings.

Liz Blake

Liz Blake is a language enthusiast who takes a special interest in linguistic anthropology and how language affects the way people interact and see the world. In her spare time she likes to read, garden, and most of all: travel!

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