How we learn to speak and understand language and how the brain processes it is not entirely understood, but neuroscientists often study people who can speak two languages fluently to try and understand more about language and the brain.
A new study by Professor Panos Athanasopoulos, a linguist from Lancaster University and Professor Emanuel Bylund, a linguist from Stellenbosch University and Stockholm University, shows that the perception of time is different in who are bilingual versus those who speak only one language. The research is published in Journal of Experimental Psychology and is the first clinical study to show that the ability to speak more than one language fluently actually impacts cognitive flexibility in other brain processes.
When a person is engaged in speaking two languages in a back and forth pattern, such as when translating from one language to another, the brain has a certain activity pattern associated with that. It’s called “code switching” because the brain is constantly decoding information into another form, such as hearing someone speak Spanish and then telling another person what they said, only in English.
Language is not just about words and decoding information however. Different languages are built around different ways that people experience their environment and describe it to others. In the case of perception of time, the way someone describes how long a specific time period is differs according to what language is spoken. In Spanish speakers time is described as "big" or "small" which is also how volume and size are described. In Swedish the same time period might be described as "long" or "short" which are descriptors of volume and size.
In the study, those participants who spoke both Spanish and Swedish were asked to estimate the amount of time passed while they watched a line move across a screen or a container being filled. The word for duration was presented in each language (tid in Swedish and duracion in Spanish.) Even though participants spoke each language, fluently, when the Spanish word was shown while containers were filled and the line moving, they described the time passing in terms of volume. In the instances where the Swedish word was shown and the line was moving across the screen, the descriptions changed to descriptors normally used for distances, and stayed that way when the containers were shown The perception of time was language based and not affected by the image being seen
Professor Athanasopoulos explained this cognitive flexibility in a press release, stating, "By learning a new language, you suddenly become attuned to perceptual dimensions that you weren't aware of before. 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. But it also shows that 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."
The video below explains more about time perception as it relates to language, check it out.