The way fluently bilingual people perceive time may change depending on the language they are using at the moment, thanks to a concept known as cognitive flexibility. This new finding adds to what we know about language's influence on our perception of the world, and suggests that your concept of time may be more closely linked to your mother tongue than your time zone, according to the study, conducted by researchers from Sweden and published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. 

For example, languages such as English and Swedish tend to mark time passage as physical distances, such as a “short” break or a “long” break. On the other hand, Greek and Spanish speakers describe time using physical quantities, such as a “small” break or a “big” break. These descriptive words can physically adjust how we perceive time. However, those who speak both languages perceive time both ways, and subconsciously switch depending on the language they are using at the time, the research noted. 

Read: Learning A New Language Can Change The Way You See The World, From New Colors To A Better Sense Of Direction

"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,” said lead study author Panos Athanasopoulos in a statement on ScienceDaily.

For their research, the team measured differences in time perception in Swedish/Spanish bilinguals. In doing so, they observed how, when given a Spanish language prompt, the volunteers perceived time as volume, but when given a Swedish prompt, they subconsciously switched to perceive time as distance traveled.

In 2015, Athanasopoulos found that language can also affect speakers' perception of an action. In German, actions usually involve both the action and the goal, whereas in English, actions typically leave out the goal. For example, in one scenario, after viewing the same video of a woman walking on a street, German speakers tended to describe what they saw as “a woman walking towards her car” whereas English speakers would simply describe the scenario as “a woman walking.” In this instance two individuals seeing the scenario may describe it differently, slightly changing their perception of the situation, with German speakers focusing on the possible outcomes of people’s actions where English speakers would focus more on the action only.

Learning a foreign language can be difficult, especially when done in adulthood, however, as shown in this study, the benefits of being bilingual don’t just stop at more work and travel opportunities.

“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," Athanasopoulos concluded.

Source: Bylund E, Athanasopoulos P.  The Whorfian Time Warp: Representing Duration Through the Language Hourglass. Journal of Experimental Psychology : General, 2017

See Also:

How Learning A New Language Changes Your Brain And Your Perception

Bilingual Benefits: How Learning Another Language Keeps Your Mind Sharp, No Matter Your Age