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Language changes how you understand time

Kin Cheung / AP

The language you speak can alter the way you think about and understand the passage of time, according to a recent study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

The focus group: The researchers gathered 40 Spanish speakers and 40 Swedish speakers to complete a series of tests using computer animation to show one of two conditions: estimating how long it took for two lines to grow and for a cup to fill up with water. Swedish speakers, like English speakers, tend to think of time in terms of length (i.e. "It's been a long day") while Spanish speakers typically describe time in terms of volume (i.e. "It's been a full day").

What happened: The first test showed two separate growing lines, one four inches long and the other six inches. Participants were explicitly told that each took three seconds to grow, but Swedish speakers thought more than three seconds had passed after the six-inch line grew to completion. Spanish speakers maintained that three seconds had passed, no matter the length.

Test #2: Although Spanish speakers understood the passage of time with growing lines, they were tripped up when asked to estimate the amount of time it took for a cup to fill halfway and completely with water. They estimated that more time had passed the fuller the cup was filled, while Swedish speakers didn't have a problem estimating how long it took.

Why it matters: The results suggest that language influences how we understand the passage of time, whether in terms of length or volume. One researcher, Emmanuel Bylund, told PopularScience, "Even babies who don't yet master language seem to have an association between physical length and temporal length." That means we may have an inherent tendency to associate physical length (or volume) with longer time.

But: It's important to remember that it's not binary — in some tests administered by the researchers, the participants weren't given notice of how long each task took; in those cases, both Spanish and Swedish speakers were fairly accurate in their estimations.