Expectations and judgments about the flow of time appear to be cognitively and culturally malleable. Here we explored the possibility that this malleability is responsive to relevant linguistic influences. Specifically, we hypothesized that an extended present time frame, which compresses imminent and completed events into the present, is the default for speakers of tenseless languages. We examined descriptions and judgments of pictured actions by speakers of Chinese, a tenseless language, and of English, a tensed language. Experiment 1 elicited verbal descriptions of imminent, ongoing, and completed actions. Overall, Chinese descriptions adhered less closely to the implicit tri-phasic temporal framing than English ones (64% vs. 88%), instead showing a strong tendency to describe most events as ongoing. Although this tendency among Chinese speakers was easily adjusted when the tri-phasic temporal framework was imposed through instructions (Experiment 2), nonlinguistic tasks yielded data consistent with the extended present view. In Experiment 3, Chinese speakers produced a narrower time window (distance between the imminent and completion time points) than English speakers when they were asked to mark on a time line the points of occurrence for imminent, ongoing, and completed actions. Conversely, Experiment 4 showed that Chinese speakers produced a wider, extended time window than English speakers when they were asked to mark the actual durations of actions. Taken together, the results indicate that, in the domain of simple episodic actions, the absence of tense in Chinese leads speakers to focus by default on temporal continuity as opposed to temporal segmentation.
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