In Ted Chiang’s science-fiction masterpiece “Story of Your life” — adapted into the Hollywood blockbuster “Arrival” — the protagonist, a linguist named Louise Banks, learns the language of an alien race — one that completely alters her perception of time.

As she becomes increasingly proficient in this alien language, she begins to perceive time not as a linear sequence of events (wherein cause precedes effect), but as a chunk in which all events occur simultaneously.

The story is, of course, science-fiction, and thus takes certain creative liberties with real ideas and concepts (especially with what’s called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). But the central tenet of the story — that language alters how the brain perceives time — may not be far off the mark.

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In a study published in the latest edition of the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, a team of linguists describe experiments that suggest people who speak two languages fluently think about time differently from those that speak only one.

This is because unlike people who speak only one language, bilinguals go back and forth between their languages rapidly — a phenomenon called “code-switching.”

“By learning a new language, you suddenly become attuned to perceptual dimensions that you weren’t aware of before,” study co-author Panos Athanasopoulos, a linguist from Lancaster University, in the U.K., said in a statement. “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.”

For the purpose of their study, the researchers focused on three groups — one composed of people that spoke only Swedish, one that contained only Spanish speakers, and one that was made of Spanish-Swedish bilinguals.

Swedish speakers, much like their English speaking counterparts, think of time in terms of physical distance, using words like “short” and “long” to refer to the passage of time. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, perceive the passage of time as growth in volume, using words such as “small” and “big” while referring to it.

As part of their experiment, the researchers asked the participants to estimate how much time had passed while watching a line growing across a screen, or a container being filled, or both.

“Contrary to the universalist account, we found language-specific interference in a duration reproduction task, where stimulus duration conflicted with its physical growth,” the researchers wrote in the study. “When reproducing duration, Swedish speakers were misled by stimulus length, and Spanish speakers were misled by stimulus size/quantity. These patterns conform to preferred expressions of duration magnitude in these languages.”

On the other hand, bilingual subjects — while being prompted with either the word “duración” (the Spanish word for duration) or “tid” (the Swedish word for duration) — exhibited something surprising. If prompted by the Spanish word, they based their time estimates of how full the containers were, ignoring the growing lines, and if they were given the Swedish prompt words, they estimated the time elapsed solely by the distance the lines had traveled.

In addition to empirically demonstrating the effect of language on temporal perception, the study also provides evidence of cognitive flexibility in people who speak two languages.

“There is evidence to suggest that mentally going back and forth between different languages on a daily basis confers advantages on the ability to learn and multi-task, and even long term benefits for mental well-being,” Athanasopoulos said in the statement.

This is not the first study that suggests being bilingual makes your brain healthier. Brain scans of lifelong bilinguals indicate speaking more than one language can provide some protection against dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease.

Some experiments even suggest this so-called “bilingual advantage” extends to performance in verbal and non-verbal intelligence tests.