Stories

Alexi McCammond May 10, 2017
SaveSave story

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.