Space and Time in the Bilingual Mind

If you read my posts on a regular basis, you probably know that I am quite interested in bilingualism and its effects on cognition. Another person who conducts a lot of studies in things like this is Lera Boroditsky, one of the most public-friendly academics in psycholinguistics. Boroditsky recently released an interesting paper with Vicky Lai that I thought I would report on here for you.

Something that has been on Boroditsky’s radar for quite a while is the relationship between space and time as it is mediated by language, which is primarily through metaphor. For example, in English, we have two different metaphorical views of time. The first is an ego-moving view, in which time is stationary and we are moving along it. This is the metaphor we are using when we say “we’re coming up on the deadline.” The time-moving view, in which we are stationary and time is moving, results in things like “the deadline is approaching.”

This certainly is not a universal phenomenon, though. Mandarin, for example, discusses some elements of time in terms of front and back, similar to English, but also talks about the “up month” (last month) or the “down week” (next week).

Boroditsky and Lai used three different groups of speakers: English monolinguals, Mandarin monolinguals, and English-Mandarin bilinguals. Each of these was split into two smaller groups — one for each experimental condition.

In the experiment, the researchers asked groups of participants two different questions: one about rescheduling a meeting, and one about resetting a clock. In the first question, one group was asked which day a meeting that was originally scheduled on Wednesday, but was moved forward by two days, would fall on. The second group was asked what time a clock would say if it was moved forward one hour from 1:00 p.m.

Obviously, there are two different options here: in the first case, participants could say Monday or Friday. And in the second, they could say 12:00 p.m. or 2:00 p.m.

So what happened? The monolingual results are not all that surprising: English monolinguals were more likely to say “Friday” or “2:00 p.m.” than the Mandarin speakers, indicating an ego-moving perspective. Mandarin speakers were more likely to adopt a time-moving perspective.

What interested me, though, was the bilinguals. In the meeting-rescheduling experiment, the bilinguals were tested in English, while in the clock-resetting one, they were tested in Mandarin. In both situations, though, they were less likely to use an ego-moving perspective than English speakers, but more likely to use one than Mandarin speakers.

This sounds complicated, but what it comes down to is that they fell not in line with the English speakers, and not in line with the Mandarin speakers, but somewhere in the middle. And because they were tested in both of their languages, this experiment indicates that there is an effect of their first language on their second, but also of their second language on their first.

This all sounds quite complex, but the important thing is that it provides a bit more evidence for the argument that bilinguals are not just two separate monolinguals in one mind — they actually form a third cognitive system that is not reducible to either of their languages, but results from the interaction of both.

It is this third cognitive system that really intrigues me. People have shown it in a few different fields now, including shape classification, and I am looking forward to seeing where it goes in the future.

If you would like to read more about this, I recommend checking out Aneta Pavlenko’s work — she does a lot of research on bilingual memory, restructuring, and transfer. I have listed a few books and articles below that might interest you.


Lai VT, & Boroditsky L (2013). The immediate and chronic influence of spatio-temporal metaphors on the mental representations of time in english, mandarin, and mandarin-english speakers. Frontiers in psychology, 4 PMID: 23630505

Pavlenko, A. (1999). New approaches to concepts in bilingual memory. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 2(3), 209–230.

Pavlenko, A. (2011). (Re-)naming the world: Word-to-referent mapping in second language speakers. In A. Pavlenko (Ed.), Thinking and Speaking in Two Languages (pp. 198–236). Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Pavlenko, A. (2011). Thinking and speaking in two languages: Overview of the field. In A. Pavlenko (Ed.), Thinking and Speaking in Two Languages. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Image via Andrey Kuzmin / Shutterstock.

Daniel Albright, MA, PhD (c)

Daniel Albright, MA, is a PhD student at the University of Reading, studying the lateralization of linguistically mediated event perception. He received his masters in linguistics from the University of Colorado-Boulder. Get in touch with him at or on Twitter at @dann_albright.
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