Speakers of English and many other languages refer to the future as being in front, and the past behind (e.g. “I look forward to seeing you”). This manner of thinking and speaking is so entrenched, we rarely pause to consider why we do it. One influential and intuitive explanation is that humans have an obvious front (the way our heads face), which combined with our tendency to think about time in terms of space, leads us to see ourselves moving forwards into the future, or the future coming towards us. A problem with this account is that there exist cultures and languages – such as the Andean language Aymara – that think and speak of the future as being behind them (and the past in front).
This leads to the proposition that perhaps people’s sense of the location of the past and future is somehow tied to their culture’s linguistic convention. Not so. In a new paper, Juanma de la Fuente and colleagues investigate Moroccan Arabic speakers – these people refer in their language to the future being in front of them (and the past behind), yet in their hand gestures they convey the opposite temporal arrangement. Clearly the ways we speak and think about time can dissociate. Still unanswered then is what leads people to differ in where they locate the past and future.
In the first of several experiments, de la Fuente’s team presented Moroccan Arabic speakers (most were students at the Abdelmalek Essaadi University in Tetouan) and Spanish speakers (students at the University of Granada) with a diagram featuring a human face with one box in front of it, and one behind. The participants were told that an object had been picked up by the person in the diagram yesterday, or was to be picked up by them tomorrow. The participants’ task in each case was to indicate which box the object was located in.
This test confirmed that, despite speaking of the future as being in front of them, the majority of Moroccan Arabic speakers think of it as being behind. Around 85 per cent of them located tomorrow’s object behind the person in the diagram, compared with just over 10 per cent of the Spanish speakers. De la Fuente’s group think the reason has to do with temporal focus. Their theory – “the temporal-focus hypothesis” – is that people and cultures who focus more on the past tend to locate it in front.
This argument was supported by several further investigations. A “temporal focus questionnaire” (example items included “The young people must preserve tradition” and “Technological advances are good for society”) confirmed that Moroccan Arabic speakers display a greater focus on the past, as compared with Spanish speakers. Within a group of young and old Spanish speakers, meanwhile, the older participants had a greater focus on the past and they more often located the past in front (on a diagram). Among another group of Spanish speakers, those people who were more focused on the past also tended to locate the past in front. Finally, when the researchers primed Spanish speakers to think about their past (by having them write about their childhoods), they were subsequently far more likely to locate the past in front of them (and the future behind).
The researchers said they’d demonstrated “a previously unexplored cross-cultural difference in spatial conceptions of time” and that they’d validated “a new principle by which culture-specific habits of temporal thinking can arise: the temporal-focus hypothesis.”