How Linguistic and Cultural Forces Shape Conceptions of Time: English and Mandarin Time in 3D

Cognitive Science 35 (7):1305-1328 (2011)
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Abstract

In this paper we examine how English and Mandarin speakers think about time, and we test how the patterns of thinking in the two groups relate to patterns in linguistic and cultural experience. In Mandarin, vertical spatial metaphors are used more frequently to talk about time than they are in English; English relies primarily on horizontal terms. We present results from two tasks comparing English and Mandarin speakers’ temporal reasoning. The tasks measure how people spatialize time in three-dimensional space, including the sagittal (front/back), transverse (left/right), and vertical (up/down) axes. Results of Experiment 1 show that people automatically create spatial representations in the course of temporal reasoning, and these implicit spatializations differ in accordance with patterns in language, even in a non-linguistic task. Both groups showed evidence of a left-to-right representation of time, in accordance with writing direction, but only Mandarin speakers showed a vertical top-to-bottom pattern for time (congruent with vertical spatiotemporal metaphors in Mandarin). Results of Experiment 2 confirm and extend these findings, showing that bilinguals’ representations of time depend on both long-term and proximal aspects of language experience. Participants who were more proficient in Mandarin were more likely to arrange time vertically (an effect of previous language experience). Further, bilinguals were more likely to arrange time vertically when they were tested in Mandarin than when they were tested in English (an effect of immediate linguistic context)

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