Almost a decade ago, Boroditsky, then a young assistant professor at MIT, conducted a study of Mandarin speakers that thrust her into the spotlight. English speakers, she explains, tend to see time on a horizontal plane: The best years are ahead; he put his past behind him. Speakers of Mandarin, however, tend to see time both horizontally and vertically, with new events emerging from the ground like a spring of water, the past above and the future below.
The language this author uses is a little confusing.
There are two “planes” used for space and time in English and Mandarin: vertical and horizontal.
The horizontal plane is commonly used in both languages for space and time:
Spacial: qian/hou, forward/behind (e.g. “qian/houbian” in M, or “behind the couch” in E)
Temporal: (e.g. “houtian” in M, or “move the meeting forward”in E)
The vertical plane is common as a temporal (time) measure in Mandarin, but not nearly as common in English:
Spacial: shang/xia, above/below (e.g. “zai zhuozi shang” in M, or “below the belt” in E)
Temporal: (e.g. “shang/xia ge xingqi” in M, or “the meeting is coming up” in E)
In experiments, Boroditsky’s participants would be asked to identify whether certain temporal statements, like “January comes after February” were true or false. But immediately before they were asked these questions, they were given spacial “primes” illustrating vertical and horizontal relations (these came in the form of pictures with captions like “the red circle is above the blue circle” or “the green snail is behind the purple snail”). Then the participants’ reaction times from the temporal true/false questions were measured. The reaction times of English speakers were much faster after they had been given “horizontal” spacial primes. For Mandarin speakers, the vertical primes yielded quicker reaction times. Therefore, speakers of the two languages could be said to “see” time differently. This study was a major breakthrough for linguists and psychologists, as many have spent years trying to determine whether or not different languages affect the way we see and think about the world.
I hope that explanation is clear enough… Studies like this are hard to boil down, but (I think) worth the effort! I can remember my very first Chinese professor lying down on top of a table at the front of the class to describe to us how the Mandarin time-system worked. It was a novel concept to me then, and Boroditsky’s work makes it even more interesting!