How language distorts the way you perceive time and space


Spanish monolinguals spotted the ball using the intrinsic frame of reference 78% of the time and English monolinguals 52% of the time. English speakers only chose the intrinsic setting if the possessive phrase “the ball is to the left of the dog” was used. The wording didn’t matter to Spanish speakers. They simply preferred the intrinsic frame, unless the object was inanimate – it was a vase or a car rather than a dog, statue or human.

In a follow-up study, Tenbrink showed that bilingual Spanish and English speakers fell somewhere between monolingual Spanish and English speakers, and were more influenced by the frame of reference more commonly used in the country in which they lived. interpret spatial relationships in a slightly different way,” says Tenbrink. “And once the speaker speaks both languages, their preferences change in different ways. I thought that was quite fascinating because people don’t normally realize that their preferences change because they’ve learned a second language.”

Either way, it’s something to keep in mind if you’re choosing a meeting place with someone who speaks a different language than you.

Speakers of some languages ​​also focus more on actions than on the larger context. When watching videos involving movement, speakers of English, Spanish, Arabic and Russian tended to describe what happened in terms of action, such as “a man who walking”. German, Afrikaans, and Swedish speakers, meanwhile, focused on the holistic image, including the full stop, describing it as “a man walks towards a car.”

Athanasopoulos recalls an incident that laid bare how this can interfere with navigation. While working on a language project, he goes hiking with a group of international researchers in the English countryside. Aiming to get from a town to a small village, they had to cross a private estate by walking across a field, as indicated by a sign with the message: “Cross the field diagonally”. For English and Spanish speakers, it was intuitive. But a German speaker hesitated, looking a bit confused. When shown the way through the field, at the end of which was a church, she finally concluded, “Ah, you mean we should walk towards the church?” She needed a starting and ending point to imagine the diagonal the sign was referring to.

As this body of research grows, it becomes increasingly clear that language influences the way we think about the world around us and our passage through it. This does not mean that one language is “better” than another. As Tenbrink argues, “a language will develop what its users need”.

But being aware of the differences between languages ​​can help you think, navigate and communicate better. And while being multilingual doesn’t necessarily make you a genius, we can all gain a new perspective and more flexible understanding of the world by learning a new language.

* Miriam Frankel and Matt Warren are science journalists and authors of Are You Thinking Clearly?

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