Wonder Woman is a superhero of many talents: She’s got incredible strength and speed, and she seems to be both indestructible and immortal. But her most underrated skill of all is her ability to speak countless languages. In Wonder Woman, audiences see her omnilingualism at work as she switches from reading ancient Sumarian to chatting up village locals in French. Recent research suggests that her linguistic aptitude may also explain how she manages to skirt the constraints of time.
In a paper recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers at Lancaster University explain that people’s perceptions of time differ, depending on what language they speak. For people fluent in many different languages, however, thinking about time depends on what language they’re thinking in. This, says the study authors, means that bilinguals have a cognitive flexibility that other people don’t have.
Immortality and language fluidity must make the concept of time very strange for Wonder Woman.
“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,” wrote study co-author and linguist Panos Athanasopoulus, Ph.D., in The Conversation on Tuesday.
In the study, Athanasopoulus and co-author Emanual Bylund, Ph.D., a professor at Stockholm University, studied people who spoke either Swedish, Spanish, or both. Swedish speakers, they found, visualize the duration of time as physical distances, like a horizontal line, but people who speak Spanish visualize time in terms of quantity. So, the former group would perhaps describe their work break as “short,” but the latter would say it was “small.”
People who could speak Swedish and Spanish, meanwhile, switched the way they visualized time, depending on whether they were prompted to do so using either the Swedish or Spanish word for “duration.” In Spanish, they visualized time using a container volume, and in Swedish they described it by line length.
“Such shifting behavior within the same individual reveals hitherto undocumented levels of flexibility in time representation,” the authors write. “These results reveal the malleable nature of human time representation as part of a highly adaptive information processing system.”
Athanasopoulus explains that learning a new language allows people to become “attuned to perceptual dimensions that you weren’t aware of before.” Language, he argues, creeps into and influences our basic senses — whether it’s our emotions, visual perception, or sense of time. A person’s ability to go back and forth between languages is what demonstrates their cognitive flexibility. This means that polyglots, like Wonder Woman, don’t just think about the duration of time in different ways — they can also do so more quickly, and with more ease.