For example, in Swedish, the word for future is framtid which literally means “front time”. Visualising the future as in front of us (and the past as behind us) is also very common in English. We look forward to the good times ahead and to leaving the past behind us.
But for speakers of Aymara (spoken in Peru), looking ahead means looking at the past. The word for future (qhipuru) means “behind time” – so the spatial axis is reversed: the future is behind, the past is ahead. The logic in Aymara appears to be this: we can’t look into the future just like we can’t see behind us. The past is already known to us, we can see it just like anything else that appears in our field of vision, in front of us.
In one study, Chinese-English bilinguals were asked to arrange pictures of a young, mature, and old Brad Pitt and Jet Li. They arranged the former horizontally, with the young Brad Pitt to the left and the old Brad Pitt to the right. But the same people arranged the pictures of Jet Li vertically, with young Jet Li appearing at the top and old Jet Li appearing at the bottom. It seems that culture and meaning form a tight bond as this context-dependent shift in behaviour shows.
- Has learning a different language changed the way you think?
- Try an experiment – talk to a few people of similar background, except that one is monolingual, while others have differing abilities to speak other languages. Ask them the same question, for example, what hobbies are suitable for students. Do they respond differently?