S1 E8: Basque – Prof. Itziar Laka

In this episode, we talk with Professor Itziar Laka, a researcher at the Department of Linguistics and Basque Studies, and the director of The Bilingual Mind research group at the University of the Basque Country. Itziar completed her PhD at MIT and was an Assistant Professor in Linguistics at the University of Rochester in New York before returning to Europe where she has been an invited professor at the Universities of Vienna, Utrecht, Naples and Río de Janeiro, and an invited research fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in Humanities, and the Instituto Universitario Ortega y Gasset, among others. She is Member of Jakiunde, the Basque Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, and corresponding member of Euskaltzaindia, the Academy for the Basque Language. Itziar has also written a book on Basque, A Brief Grammar of Euskara, the Basque Language, which was published in 1996 and is freely available on the internet. Her current research combines theoretical linguistics and experimental methods from psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics to inquire into the neural representation and processing of language, with a strong focus on syntax and bilingualism.

At The Bilingual Mind research group, they conduct research on the effects of bilingualism and plan to complete research on healthy older adults in the future. In the past, many of their studies looked at the effects on young adults and older adults who have cognitive impairments. So The Bilingual Mind will soon venture into new, exciting territory.

Listen here!

Episode Transcript


[Carine] Welcome to another exciting episode of Much Language Such Talk. In this episode you’ll be listening to me, Carine, and María, a new volunteer with Bilingualism Matters who’s studying for an MSc in Developmental Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. María’s studies focus on language acquisition, bilingualism over the lifespan and psychology of language learning. She is interested in researching cognitive advantages of bilingualism and sharing information about the benefits of bilingualism, multilingualism, and language learning in her community. Welcome, María. Hi, how are you?

Click to continue reading…

[María] I’m good. Thank you for having me.

[Carine] No, thanks for joining us! I was just wondering, how did you develop your interest in bilingualism?

[María] Well, I grew up in a bilingual community. And it has always interested me how we could acquire two languages at the same time, how we could also learn foreign languages and of course, how people dealt with them differently in our society. So, I decided to make that interest my studies in the university.

[Carine] Really cool. What was the bilingual community that you grew up in?

[María] I grew up in Galicia, which is in the northwest of Spain, and we speak Spanish and Galician there. Both languages are official and used.

[Carine] That’s really cool. Fantastic. And today, María and I will be talking with Professor Itziar Laka. She’s from the University of the Basque Country, where she teaches and conducts research at the Department of Linguistics and Basque Studies. Her current research combines theoretical linguistics and experimental methods of psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, to inquire into the neural representations and processing of language with a strong focus on syntax and bilingualism. She’s the director of the Bilingual Mind Research Group. Their research is going to begin looking at bilingualism in healthy older adults. They realized that there are many studies looking at the effects on young adults and older adults who have cognitive impairments, but not healthy older adults. So welcome, Itziar. Hi, thank you for joining us.

[Itziar] Thank you for inviting me.

[Carine] How are you doing?

[Itziar] Good enough, given the strange times we’re living in.

[Carine] That’s great to hear. So let’s jump right into it. María, if you can please start us off.

[María] Of course. So, Itziar, we were wondering if you are bilingual, and if so, what languages do you speak and which one is your predominant language?

[Itziar] Well, I am obviously bilingual because I speak with a strong accent, right? So, you already see that English is not my native language. I am bilingual but I speak more than two languages. So I am trilingual I guess, or multilingual. I don’t know what you mean by predominant, but if you, by that, you mean which ones I use every day: Spanish and Basque.

[María] And what is your area of expertise? And how do you relate that to Basque?

[Itziar] Well, if I have any area of expertise, because mostly I think I personally think I know very little about what I work on even, and the more you know, the more aware you are how little you know. But I guess I am a linguist. So, my area of expertise are languages and, in particular, how languages are represented and processed in the mind. And how do I relate this to Basque? Well, Basque is a language, right?

[María] And we were wondering, so we recently learned about the difference between the Basque Country, or Euskal Herria, and the Basque Country, the region in Spain. So, could you explain us where is Euskal Herria or Basque Country?

[Itziar] So, the Basque Country is at the shore of the golf of Biscay, and it goes inland. It’s comprised of seven territories traditionally, as far as Basque culture is concerned, and Basque history is concerned, but currently, it is divided in three different political units. Two of them are within Spain, and one is in France. The Basque Country, as far as we are concerned, is the area where Basque has been spoken historically, and is currently spoken.

[María] So, is it historically bilingual? Or Basque was the only languages spoken there first, and now more languages are used in those areas?

[Itziar] Well, I think that even if you go back in history, you will be surprised by the amount of bilingualism and multilingualism in traditional societies, because I do not think that as you go back in history, you find progressively more monolingual societies. So, the Basque Country has rural areas, has seafaring areas. So, in different societies within the Basque speaking community have different histories. But, there is a high degree of bilingualism, like there is all over Europe. It depends where you’re looking at. So, let me give you an example. In the 13th and 14th century, Basque whale hunters, were going to Iceland, obviously, they were speaking languages other than Basque, they were going to Newfoundland where they spoke with the Miꞌkmaq Indians, so they’ve been traveling all over the place. They must have been able to communicate with Spanish travelers, French, English, etc. So, were they? So, I assume that in as you go back in history in the Basque Country, many languages have probably been spoken besides Basque: Bascom, French, Spanish, Arab and Jewish languages. I’m not an expert on going back in history, but certainly, I do not imagine a monolingual block of people. I do not imagine that as I go back in time.

[María] That’s so interesting. How many speakers are there of Basque in the Basque Country?

[Itziar] Well, about 750,000 whereabouts, it is probably more because these numbers come from the last social linguistic inquest that was done in 2016. And people under 16 are not accounted for. And since we know that people under 16 right now, in some areas of the Basque Country, are overwhelmingly bilingual. Probably the number is closer to 800,000 speakers.

[María] And are there are a lot of non-native speakers of Basque or second language speakers?

[Itziar] Well, ‘a lot’ is a relative measure, right?

[Carine] (laughs)

[María] Yes.

[Itziar] But let’s say that there are, there are many people that have learned Basque as a second language. Yes.

[Carine] I was wondering, so, you mentioned that the Basque Country falls over quite a large region and has certain parts within it. I think we mentioned specifically that there are three main regions of the Basque Country.

[Itziar] I would never claim that the Basque Country is a large space. It is probably larger than some people think, right? So, it is larger than what is called the Basque Autonomous Community or Euskadi, right? That is one third of the Basque Country.

[Carine] Okay.

[Itziar] So, one of them includes three provinces: Biscay, Gipuzkoa, and Álava. And that is the Basque Autonomous Region, what in Spain is called País Vasco. That’s not what culturally Basque people consider to be the Basque Country. Then there is Navarre, which is the largest province and by itself, it constitutes a separate political entity in Spain. Navarre is the region that hosted the Kingdom of Navarre, and the only Basque speaking King we’ve ever had was one of the first kings of Navarre. Then, there are the three provinces that are hosted now in France, they are smaller. One of them is Lapurdi, the other one is Lower Navarre, and the third one is Zuberoa. They are the smallest in size and in population. And they are the ones that have a very different linguistic profile from the other two political units because of the language policy followed by France.

[Carine] I was just wondering if you could summarize in a few words, the situation, and the status of Basque in the three different areas where Basque is spoken.

[Itziar] So, I will try to keep it brief without getting into history, because this can be a very long story. So, if you do a snapshot of today, so say in this inquest, in this study that was done in 2016. Overall, if you take the entire area, overall, the language is growing. And for example, since ’91 to 2016, there are 200,000 more Basque speakers, right, in that period of time. So, the language is in overall numbers growing, and it is growing much more in younger generations than in older generation. So, it’s exactly the type of demographic pyramid that you would like for a language to stay alive, basically, right?

[Carine] Yes, definitely.

[Itziar] It is, nowadays, it is present in the media, TV, radio, university, whatever, you name it. So overall, about 30% of the population, the total population of the Basque Country, speaks Basque and about 20% can understand it. So, they are sort of passive bilinguals. But the three political areas into which the Basque Country is divided, have independent language policies. So that means that they have different outputs as the decades go. So, the best data of language growth comes from Euskadi, the Basque Autonomous Community, and that is also the one that has been applying a good language policy, to maintain the language. So, public education includes a choice of three different models with different amounts of Basque presence and, overwhelmingly, people have chosen, even when it’s not their native language, parents overwhelmingly choose the model that has the most Basque in it so that their children will be bilingual and will know Basque. So, in general, in the Basque Autonomous Community, I think the outlook is pretty good in the language policy that has been applied. Basque is viewed well even by population that don’t speak it. In Navarre, things change depending on the government. So, it’s less stable and it keeps changing depending on who is in power. So, there are zones, Navarre is divided in zones, and different language policies apply to different zones. So, there are parts of Navarre that are monolingual Spanish and that’s it. And the language policy pays attention only to that. In the northern areas, there are more bilingual areas, but Basque is not equally available in public education, for example. Although the numbers are not bad lately, for Navarre, even in Navarre, you have speaker growth, particularly in younger generations overall. But let’s say that the language policy there is not as efficient because nothing changes. And then the dire situation, we find it in the three French provinces. These were historically the provinces where the classical literature grew. This was the motor and the engine of Basque culture, this area. But since the French Revolution, the language policy of France changes completely. Basque is sort of accused of being contra-revolutionary for things that would be too lengthy to explain here. And so, since then, you see that there is a lot of mistrust by the part of the state towards the Basque language. And that is, eventually has resulted in the fact that they don’t even constitute a political unit of their own, only recently they became just a departement, just that, right? On their own. They were put together with other areas, they don’t have access to the Basque language in public schools, the TV they see is the one that the (Basque) Autonomous Community has. So, there is a popular movement. I don’t know how representative of the overall population. But let’s say that there, the numbers are quite different, because the percentages of people who speak the language are greater, because it’s a very rural area. But you see more people in older ages knowing the language than younger people. And this is not a good picture. So, we hope that things will change since the state of France is slowly becoming more reasonable towards its own languages. And I am optimistic that things will change. But the numbers are not as good there as they are in say, the (Basque) Autonomous Community where I’m speaking from.

[Carine] You’ve brought up a lot of points that are different between each of the different areas where Basque is spoken. And so, specifically in Euskadi, you had mentioned that there was an increase in younger speakers and that within the educational policies in Euskadi, that there are different modules for people to learn Basque in school. So, would you say that these, coupled possibly with the additional research done on Basque, has changed people’s attitudes? Or has it just been because it’s been so prevalent and seen in the Basque Autonomous Region that this is why Basque is being so popular here compared to the other areas where Basque is spoken?

[Itziar] I don’t think it’s a matter of popularity, I don’t think the language is less popular in other areas. And I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s a difference in language policies.

[Carine] Okay. So, it’s the politics.

[Itziar] I mean, we could dig into this very much. But one thing I want to put forth is, I don’t think that research done in Basque has any effect on the status of Basque. I think that what has a very important effect in the increase of number of speakers is that you have a language policy in place that makes space for the language. It’s not that the language gets lost, because it’s not popular. You have to be aware, if you know a little bit about the history of Spain that this is a language that has been purposely forbidden. My grandmother spent a night in jail for speaking Basque in the street. So, this is not, you know, so we come back, you know, we come from a dictatorship that banned books on Basque, you know. I remember my grandparents’ house books being burned and things being hidden. So, it’s about restoring things. This is, you know, like any discrimination. You wouldn’t say that, you know, women now are more present in society because they’re more popular. No, it’s because people are not keeping them by force at home. So, that’s why I think the important thing here is language policy. What kind of language policy do you apply? In Franco’s (Francisco Franco, ed.) time, the language policy that was being applied was murderous to languages that were not Spanish, it’s as clear as that. Their goal was for those languages to disappear. You should know I’m old enough that Franco was alive when I was a child. And I went to a clandestine school. I can tell you some other day about this. And it was clandestine because Basque was being taught and Basque was being used as a teaching language. So, this is where we’re coming from. Now you have to undo this, and this takes time. But it’s language policies, not research on Basque, that is going to bring language back. I don’t think so. Not here, not anywhere.

[María] Coming from Galicia, I can tell they were really hard times and that it was a difficult situation for those who were bilingual and wanted to keep their language in use, their own language like Galician, or Basque, or Catalan. It was a difficult situation. If we take all this back into education, and obviously, all those languages were forbidden, were banned, and therefore they weren’t part of the education system. But now you said, in Euskadi, we have a bilingual education, at the same time than we do in Catalonia or in Galicia. Do you think the bilingual education system in the Basque Country is similar to those used in the other bilingual autonomous communities in Spain? Are the systems developed together, or by the government, or each region decides their own language policies?

[Itziar] Spain has autonomous areas, and each autonomous government decides what to do. There is one put in place in the (Basque) Autonomous Region, a different one in Navarre, and basically French, in the in the French part. This gets complicated because the Basque Autonomous Community, where I’m talking from, has a greater degree of autonomy than other areas of Spain. So, I don’t know what they can decide about education policies, because that’s certainly not my area of expertise. So, I cannot compare them. I can tell you about our public school because my daughter went to it, and I am familiar with it. Here, the way it started was that you had three models to choose from in public school, right? So, parents would choose. One of them, the A model was mostly Spanish with Basque as a subject. So, they would teach you Basque the same way that they can teach you English or French as a subject, right? But the language of teaching was mostly Spanish. Then there was the B system that was supposed to be half and half. So, some subjects were taught in Basque, some subjects were taught in Spanish. And then there was the D system, which was the mirror of A, that is you have Spanish as a subject, and the language of teaching is Basque. And what ended up being the fact is that nowadays, D is the prevailing model, because that’s the one that most people choose. The reason being, Basque speaking parents, of course, majority of them decided to go for a system where their children would use Basque. But parents that were not, and I think this is important because it shows a loyalty to the language somehow, no? There are many people that lost their language. So, the grandparents spoke it, and the parents didn’t speak it. And now they had their children to go to school. And many of them decide to send their children to the D model, even though they are not going to be able, for example, to help them do their homework, because they don’t speak the language. I really feel very grateful to these people that overwhelmingly chose this model. So nowadays, you have a few places that have A model. In fact, A model is more represented in private schools. B model, I don’t know whether it’s present anywhere. I really don’t know the details of this, but I know that D model is the prevailing model. So, the D model generates bilinguals that have different dominances, right? If they speak Basque at home, you probably will be bilingual who is Basque dominant. If your home language is Spanish, you will be bilingual that might be Spanish dominant. It has made it so that, at least in the Basque Autonomous Community, if I see anybody who looks younger than 25, I usually address them in Basque, because chances are that either way, they will reply to me, or at least they’ll understand what I’m saying. Or in the worst case, politely they’ll say they don’t understand me, and they will not insult me, which is what happened in the darker times, right? People got chastised by some zealous citizens in the streets. That’s not happening. And in fact, there is no conflict. You don’t see this coming in the news as an issue.

[Carine] I just wanted to mention one thing. And I think it’s really fantastic that you have these models where the parents get to decide and so many people are choosing to have Basque as the main language spoken in their education. Personally, I only know of a few areas that are doing this. We call them language medium schools in, at least I think it’s a prominent term in Scotland. So the one here specifically is for Gaelic medium education. And so there are a couple of Gaelic primary schools and high schools but it’s still the population of people who speak Gaelic is like, this is a Scots Gaelic, not Irish Gaelic, it’s quite low. And normally the students, I don’t honestly know how well their proficiency is outside of school. But at least it’s like the numbers are getting into the class, they’re becoming more popular, you’re seeing a lot more people putting their kids in here. The only other area I know that does this as well, is in Norway, anyone who is Sami they get automatically northern Sami classes, which I think is really fantastic. And I think for it’s important for the life of these languages, that if we want to continue to have these languages, and for it to be part of our culture, we have to put a lot of revitalization programs in place to make sure that these languages don’t die out.

[María] I’m surprised I’m, I’m so overwhelmingly surprised way that actually you address young people under 25 in Basque, because in Galicia is the opposite trend. Like younger people don’t speak Galician. So we address them in Spanish, which annoys me so much (laughs). Because I think the way of making a language grow is the approach that they’re doing in the Basque Autonomous Community in Spain, and is working with the younger generations, not with the older ones. And that’s how you, through education, you keep the language alive. And I’m so overwhelmingly surprised and like happy to hear that somebody is doing things right somehow. So speaking about languages being associated to specific areas, we spoke about the Basque Country, the difference with a Euskadi and different language policies in each area. What are your thoughts on languages being associated to a specific area? Or do you think the languages are located within their speakers inside their brains and not inside an area?

[Itziar] Well, I would contend María, and it is not a matter of opinion that languages are located the brains of the speakers, right. So I will not present this as an opinion. But I will say something about linking language to land. Let me give you an example with Basque again. There was massive emigration to America at the end of the 19th century, thousands and thousands of Basque people emigrated to the States, to South America, to many countries, and they got organized there. And in fact, among the first newspapers, and the first attempt to have a unified language that all Basque people can learn, some of those efforts, not all of them, but some of them popped up in America. Now you would not think of America as the Basque country or a place where Basque speakers are, yet there was a time in history where most Basque speakers will have the money and the culture to allow themselves to think of the value of their own language were living in America, and the money those people made came back to help a lot of efforts. Similarly, when the Franco’s dictatorship came, there was exile, many Basque speakers, and most of our best writers were elsewhere. And the language kept on and the culture kept on. So I personally, and this is a matter of opinion, certainly, I don’t think it’s so relevant to tie language to land. I think language is tied to human beings. And also, I don’t like to tie one language to one people, one culture, because I have more than one language. And I don’t see a problem in that, in fact, so wherever the minds are, that’s where the languages are.

[María] Let me say those are beautiful words, and beautiful ideas as well that everyone should share.

[Itziar] Thank you, María. Thank you.

[Carine] I think it is, we, we bring our languages with us, we bring our culture with us. So that’s a really good point. It’s not tied to a specific location. Just to say that you’re Basque, and you have Basque culture doesn’t mean you have to live in the Basque region, you can be anywhere in the world.

[Itziar] Right.

[Carine] I love that.

[Itziar] One point that I want to make again and again is: you need resources.

[Carine] Yes
[Itziar] You do need resources. And if you don’t have resources, your language is going to die. That’s how it is. You need resources, you need to get hold of those resources.

[Carine] Yes, this is very true. So you do research on bilingualism and the brain structures and the representation of languages in the brain. I was wondering, do you normally do work with Basque- Spanish, Spanish- Basque bilinguals? Or, is this the main group you focus on? Are there other language groups who focus on?

[Itziar] Well is the main focus we group on because that’s the ecosystem we live in. So this is what I tell people right? We would be idiots if we didn’t study Basque-Spanish bilinguals because we are surrounded by them and we are them. Having said this, we on occasion will study French-Basque bilinguals as well when it’s relevant, we will go and move our stuff and go there. We have friends over there, researcher friends over there. So when necessary, we do that. Sometimes we will work with monolingual speakers. It depends on the question that we are asking. But there are so many very fascinating questions that can be asked about bilinguals that speak Basque and Spanish, I call them oval bilinguals because the typological properties of the languages are often the mirror, right. So when you do, María, for example, Galician-Spanish bilinguals speak two languages that share history, most typological properties, so the questions that you are going to ask are presumably different. I am studying bilinguals that speak two languages that, from a linguist’s point of view, they are as different as you can get practically, in their grammatical properties. So to me, it is interesting to see how you manage that and does it matter which one came first or does it not? Does it matter what particular grammatical trait you’re studying? To put it in simple words is as if one of the things we were studying is what is easy and what is hard to learn beyond your native language. So we study not people who are in the process of learning, we are studying those that are the best learners, right? So these are people that when they come to our lab, you can’t really tell which one is their native language most of the times because they’re very fluent in both languages. Nevertheless, one came first and the other one came second. And so when we started working, people thought that at these levels of proficiency and frequency of use you would not find differences. Yet we do. To me this is informative as to how language gets represented in your mind. So to me that in these bilinguals is like having found mineral in my mind, I am a miner and I have found a streak of mineral and I’m digging there because it’s an interesting area and I we keep digging until I keep finding stuff.

[Carine] (laughs) I love that analogy.

[Itziar] That’s as simple as I can put it.

[Carine] That’s fantastic. So we were talking about how Basque and Spanish had these different syntactic structures or grammars. And if people speak both of these languages, have you found differences between Spanish-Basque bilinguals, or Basque-Spanish bilinguals, depending on which order it is, what are the differences that you have found?

[Itziar]  So this is hard to explain without technical words, let me be very brief. So when we test these people that are early and very proficient bilinguals, and we test them on properties that are shared by Spanish and Basque, we don’t find any difference, everybody behaves the same. You do find the order in which the language was learned makes a difference. This is not about linguistic competence. We are not testing how much language they know. Okay, this population we’re talking about, the question here is not about whether you have learned the language because you have. I want to stress this because people generally understand this, right? ‘Oh, they cannot learn the language.’ No, no! You can learn the language. The issue is not you are proficient. I am saying these are early and very proficient speakers. It’s just that the way in which your brain allocates that knowledge sometimes is different.

[María] You’ve been explaining everything so, you’re making it easy to understand.

[Carine] Yeah no, that was perfect.

[Itziar] The message I want to get across because sometimes, I fear that I am being misunderstood in sending a message that you can only learn your mother’s language. Well, you know, no, that’s not what I’m saying. No, I’m saying of course, you can learn languages wonderfully, right? You just have to get going and use them frequently and be exposed to them, etc, etc, etc. Yep. I do not investigate language learning in that sense. One of the questions that drives my research is, how do you represent that linguistic knowledge? Particularly: How do you represent the things that are the same in the two grammars that you know? And the ones that are opposite, right? When we started, people had this idea that bilinguals would be sort of like a halfway between Spanish and Basque. Okay. So they wouldn’t show as strong a preference for verb-final sentences as very dominant near-monolingual Basque speakers, right? Well, then if you compare them to Spanish monolinguals, these bilinguals would not do Spanish as efficiently, things like this, right? People thought this before doing research. So my message is: This is false. Yes, you can be an early and fluent proficient bilingual of languages that are very different. And that doesn’t make your linguistic behavior, the output, what comes out of your mouth, be less accurate or competent. But moreover, it doesn’t make your brain responses to language stimuli halfway between one language and the other. That’s not what happens. Okay. And since that is not what happens, and we already know that. Now we want to know in detail, well, exactly how do you allocate those two grammars in your brain, mind? So the message is you can learn, you can be bilingual. He says that there are still things to research.

[Carine] Yes, there definitely are.

[María] That’s information that everyone needs to hear. And we need to share, because then, there are a lot of stereotypes, and like social ideas about bilinguals and monolinguals that people have, hardly anyone knows about all this research, about all this information you’re sharing. And it’s really important in order to choose like languages as well.

[Itziar] I think you guys are very optimistic about the fact that research has in society. I am not that optimistic. And I don’t think, I’m not doing this research to send an optimistic message to society. So let me make that one point I often make when talking about bilingualism right? Now, notice that all these myths about bilingualism being bad to your brain have been historically applied to populations that were economically lacking in resources and speaking at least one unprestigious language. Okay. This idea of bilingualism being bad for your brain has never been taken into consideration for the European royalties, or the Tsar’s.

[Carine] Good point.

[Itziar] You know, the elites have always been bilinguals. And they have never worried about anything. This thing that you guys call myths, are not ideas that come out of ignorance. I think you are mistaken. And you are naïve if you think this. I think these are ideas that come out of an ideology about language that thinks that some languages are better than others. If you dig into those ideas that’s will you will find. So I’m a researcher. Right. And I think research is driven science and by the questions, so this is where, you know, I communicate the results of my research to society. But I am not doing research for any ideological reason. But if you guys want to talk about myths about bilingualism, then you are getting into ideology, and you have to be aware of this. It’s not a lack of knowledge.

[Carine] I think that’s also a big thing in research.

[María] So let’s mix, let’s mix a bit all those ideas. So you do research on Basque and Spanish bilinguals. And like the idea of like some languages being more represented than others in research as well. And that we need to use a bit, like the resources we have around us, in your case it’s Basque and Spanish bilinguals, or French and Basque bilinguals . But then when you choose the language, you publish your research, what language do you normally use? Do you publish in Basque? Do you publish in Spanish? Do you publish in English?

[Itziar] You mean to convey my scientific results? English. Because my community, the community to whom I want to communicate my research results, is the global community of researchers on language. The people who care about these are my colleagues, scientists who work on this area, like in other realms of science, right? So what’s this, does it make for me to publish my research results in Basque? It wouldn’t make any sense to me. How many people would read about it? No one. Out of those, you know, who would be interested? Very few people. Look at us. We are conversing in English. What’s the reason? Because it’s the lingua franca. Now, I don’t care which one it is, I know, it’s not going to be Basque. Right. So I don’t care which one is the lingua franca, but the people I’m talking to communicate in my research are scientists of the same areas I work in. I was just talking to somebody in India, right? Hindi is a very interesting language to me. So people who work on electrophysiology of sentence processing, and they look at Hindi. That is interesting for me, right? Any language will be interesting. But there are more or less interesting things. Now, if I don’t have a lingua franca to communicate, how do I communicate with these Indian researchers that I am so interested in talking to? Right? Or anybody else? Who doesn’t speak Spanish or Basque might talk to them? But this is not about, this is about science. A different issue is that as a scientist, since I work with public money, I keep my public informed of what I do if they want to hear about it. So of course, on occasion, I will do outreach presentations, when I know that I am not talking to my colleague, researchers, and I use very pretty images. And I talk at this level that I am talking about here without getting into the nitty gritty, right, and I summarize results. But for whoever is interested in knowing about them, I am not going to draw ideology out of my results. Not in one sense, not in the other, I will tell you factual things. So it follows from the research, we do this and that and the other, or they are things that follow from the research I do that can inform language policy. But that’s because language policy has certain goals. And sometimes you need the science to know how to meet those goals. See, so I can do a read, I can I can tell my friends, recently I was even giving a talk about extraterrestrial language and talking in a series with astronomers. And that was a lot of fun.

[Carine] That sounds amazing!

[Itziar] It was opportunities, yeah, to reach out and explain, but that’s not science that is reach out. To me, they are different things. When I do reach out, or I’m writing for students, for example, then I write in Basque or in Spanish, but if I am communicating my research results, directly they will be communicated in English, because they will be published in languages that are English languages.

[Carine] I do have one, like thing though, is it important to you think it is to keep your population informed about the research you do? So that way when they go into questions and decide if they want to go into policy, or if it’s about making decisions

[Itziar] Yeah that’s fine.

[Carine] Like Personally, I think it’s important for research to be communicated in as many languages as possible in a way that’s approachable. But of course, it’s hard to do.

[Itziar] Exactly.

[Carine] But I think it’s important that you have a more informed community.

[Itziar] Right. But you see, that’s different.

[Carine] It is a different question.

[Itziar] That’s outreach. But I research. I publish in the Journal of Neurolinguistics, you know.

[Carine] Yeah. Good point. Yeah. So if when you’re talking to academic peers, it’s weird to not use the dominant language, the lingua franca, which is English, but within your own communities, it’s important to have that research done. And obviously, in the languages that they can understand, it’d be weird if I went out into the middle of Edinburgh just started speaking in Hebrew because there’d be like two people who would walk by being like ‘Why? Why is this happening?’ No one else would know what I was talking about.

[Itziar] We’ve been hearing a lot. I mean, we oftentimes, our presentations are conducted in English.

[Carine] Really?

[Itziar] Yeah. Because what are we going to do? Some people in my lab don’t speak Basque.

[Carine] Ah, but do they speak Spanish?

[Itziar] Yeah. Because they come from other parts of Spain, and an occasion from Italy, you know, we have, science is international, there is an international language. A completely different issue is, then I get invited by various people, or the head of the language policy calls me. He wants to have a chat. You know, that’s different. Just not, see, communicating your research output directly.

[Carine] That’s different, yeah.

[María] So we’ve reach very different conclusions about bilingualism research and research in general in English and Basquee. And so for your community and for the Basque Country in general, not only Euskadi, what outcomes from bilingualism research do you feel is most important to communicate and emphasize?

[Itziar] Well, there’s so many, I think this is long, but I’ll give you examples of the things that I think could inform language policy, right? So, language activation in the bilingual mind. So, we know that anytime you engage with language, I’m going to speak politically, right? Because I’m doing reach out now. Okay. So, all the languages you speak, are going to be lit in your brain, anytime you engage with language. And then, you have to kind of do something to select the language that you have to use. We didn’t know this when I was a student, right? People had no idea how this works. So, now we know how this works. Now, the more proficient you are, the greater the effort you have to do to stop one of the languages to come out. And I’m speaking very crudely, if anybody’s hearing this, you know that this is a very crude portrayal. But anyway, it has consequences that I think should be considered when you do language policy. Because one of the things that language policy involves is: how our language is presented in street signs, for instance, something as silly as that. Now, we know, from research on visual gaze, right, that they are there are positions that are more salient to us than others. If you give me a square, for example, not all positions in that square are equally salient. Depending on what language you want to push, you have to give it THE most salient space in that square. Right?

[Carine] That’s a good point.

[Itziar] There you go. And that is science. Why do you want to do that? Because that is where your eyes are going to go first, right? Now, imagine you could have different goals. Now, ideology comes in, right? Policy is not science, right? So, imagine your language policy wants to give a little help to language A, because language B is already very strong in the community. This is a very typical situation in bilingual societies. Diglossia, right? So, if you want to push language A, you want to make sure that everywhere where the citizen’s gaze is placed is in salient spaces, that’s where the language A should be, not in a smaller font in a less salient position. So that’s your decision, I can tell you what happens. And now it gets more complicated when you’re a very proficient bilingual. Because if your gaze went first, say, in a case like me, right? I’m proficient, earl, etc. If my gaze goes first to Spanish, I’m going to be inhibiting Basque. So that even later, when I have to go to Basque because it was in a less salient place, my mind is going to take longer.

[Carine] That’s a really interesting point.[Itziar] Now, then, somebody else is going to do the language policy. And, in a democracy, a voter decides, in a dictatorship it’s the dictator, whatever. That’s where social decisions come into the picture. And that’s not science, which is: are we going to push one language? And if so, which one?

[Carine] Yeah.[Itziar] Right. But if you want to do this properly, you should know, at least at some level, some general level, about the science of bilingualism. So, I do talk to people that are engaged in language policy, and I tell them: “You want to do a language policy that has the following consequences? These are the things you need to know”. And also, I tell them: “And these are the things that we don’t know yet. So, we need to find out”. You see. But that’s because I’m a researcher and I have a thinking as to how policy should be driven.

[María] In education, in our Galician subject in high school, I remember we did a bit of sociolinguistics, and I’m not sure if that’s the case with Basque in school. I remember, they told us about diglossia and how one language was pressing more strongly in the community than another. But they never showed us how they work with more scientific research towards the language policies. What you were saying now. And I think that’s important to be taught from low levels in education to then make an informed population, so like social measures, language policies, are actually properly chosen.

[Carine] Exactly.

[Itziar] Yes. This is so recent. So, broadly, when you were a kid in school, very few people know about these things. So, I was in Peru, teaching a course, right? And Quechua has millions of speakers, it’s a huge language. And yet, it’s in a pretty diglossic situation. And they wanted to know about this type of research, right? And what I told them is, I continue, we find out, but you need to get your hands on this. That’s why I talk about the resources. It’s not, you go, and you tell people what, you know. No. The people you are talking to must become actants.

[Carine] Yes.

[Itziar] You know, get hold of the resources and get going. Because your situation might be different. I guess the general message is that I consider myself a global citizen. So, I am multilingual. Basque is one of the languages that I know. But my world is not restricted to the Basque Country. So, I just wanted to put forward that, that’s not how I see myself. And I don’t think that our society, you know, our community is like that. It has never been historically. I say this because many people think, maybe because of the name, Basque country, that this is a very rural society, and that it has been like that historically. And this is not so, right? So, parts of the Basque Country are and have been rural, but, you know, Bilbao was doing commerce with London in the 13th and 12th century, right? So, there were douanes, they were going all over the place, you know, traveling. And these people have been multilingual and citizens of the world for a long time. So, I guess I also want to break the stereotype, that when there are languages that have small numbers of speakers, that these are speakers that are somehow closed in their own bubble, because I think this is not the case for many bilingual societies. In fact, it’s been argued, and I think correctly, that the reason why the Basque language did not die in the 20th century, because it could have, was because industrialization came, which destroyed the rural society, right. But it provided financial resources, that at the beginning, were in hands of people that were not Basque-friendly, but eventually, look, if like you look at history. So I think these are also stereotypes that are good to know.

[María] I think languages always find, not always, but tend to find a way to survive, like Galician during dictatorship, worked through immigration. And like the city with most Galician speakers was Argentina and not in Spain itself, because people emigrated there. So that’s where the language was kept and Basque, in Euskadi, it was thanks to industrialization. We always find a way. But I think to find a way we need to inform people, educate them, and then make people apart from educated, make them take an active role in the society and an active role in the language policies. So, information and take action and keep languages alive.

[Itziar] I’m not as optimistic as you are, María. Because many languages die. Many languages die. It’s not true that language find a way to survive. I think that’s a bit naive, and I wouldn’t want your listeners to hear this because languages are dying at a very big rate. Now, again, that is a fact.

[Carine] Yeah, I think we’re at the stage that we are, in our careers, we kind of need to be naive and be hopeful.

[María] Yes.

[Carine] So we’ve mentioned a couple of stereotypes and a couple of myths, kind of, just a little bit. I’ve lived in America and the UK. I’ve lived in Japan as well. So, I’ve lived in a lot of countries that are quite known for being mainly monolingual. I’m having air quotes here, because what is bilingualism? What is monolingualism? It’s, of course, this is a whole other podcast in itself. There are many myths about bilingualism in second language learning that are, I would say, prevalent in these countries that I’ve heard teachers, and parents, and young kids even say to me. So, these are myths, such as ‘it’s impossible to learn a second language as an adult’, that ‘kids are confused if they learn two languages from birth’, or that ‘children should only learn what’s like the majority language or whatever the most widely spoken prominent language’, like the one that has more prestige from their area, because it will be better for them in their future. Do these types of myths also exist in the Basque Country? Or have you yourself heard people say any of these kinds of things?

[Itziar] Yeah, I’m old enough that I have heard enormous amounts of things, Carine. You’d be surprised the amount of things that I have heard throughout my life. No but I’ll say one thing, the last thing you said is not a myth, it’s a choice.

[Carine] It is a choice. Yes.

[Itziar] Be careful in separating those right? Because I think if you want to persuade people that something is a myth, then what you are saying is, this is a belief that is not sustained on evidence. So be careful to separate myths from positions.

[Carine] Hmm, yes. Okay.

[Itziar] I mean, I’m insisting, as you see, I am insisting on this a lot, right?

[Carine] It’s a very good point.

[Itziar] Because one thing is a myth, like saying, if you speak to your son in two languages, you will break his brain or something like this. I’m saying it outrageously for fun. And now we know this is false. Period. Because we would consider this myth, correct. This is a myth. But saying, for example, to family of South American indigenous people who speak an indigenous language that has no social value, and to tell them if their children learn Spanish and go to school, that it is a myth, to say that they will progress. Careful there. Because people actually do make that choice. And I think one has to, and this is not science, again, this is me as a citizen. I think one has to respect people’s choices.

[Carine] Yeah.

[Itziar] As a researcher, and as a scientist, my job is to find out as much as I can, and never be afraid of what I am going to find. And never be biased if I can help it, right? So be cool in the sense. As a citizen, I have my ideas. And I will try to persuade people that my ideas might be better or whatever, right? So one has to separate carefully, myths that are factual statements about what the world is like that are not sustained by scientific evidence, from ideological choices.

[Carine] Yeah. That’s a good point. When I was, I lived in a really interesting situation. I was born in, in Los Angeles. And so I went to daycare and nursery school there and later on moved to the east coast of the US. My mom is from Finland. And so being at home with my mom as a baby, she spoke to me in Finnish all the time. I didn’t speak English.

[Itziar] Head-final!

[Carine] It’s great, honestly, comparing the two languages as an adult. So, this is the point I’m getting to is that I came home from school one day, I’ve mentioned this before on the podcast, so I won’t say the whole story where I had a note on me that said: “Please teach Carine English”. Because I couldn’t speak English at the time. I probably could understand it better than they expected it. I probably had a passive knowledge because I was raised in America. And so, at this point, my mom stopped speaking to me in English

[Itziar] That’s sad! That’s sad…

[Carine] …Sorry, stopped speaking to me in Finnish. and it really sucks as an adult because now my Finnish is literally stuck at the age of like three or four year old. I try to talk to my cousin’s children, and they’re just like, we don’t know what you’re saying. And I’ve tried several times to start learning Finnish and I’ve asked my cousins: “Hey, can we speak in Finnish?”. But they’ve literally told me ‘there’s no point in you learning Finnish now, because so few people speak it’. And I’m just like., ok…I get the point. Finnish isn’t a, you know, it’s not a very prestigious language. Everyone in Finland speaks English beautifully, honestly. Well, up to a certain age, of course. But it’s just one of those things where it’s just like, small little things could have informed such a difference in me being grown. And it was a decision, yeah.

[Itziar] Yeah, exactly. Yeah. But there you go, see. That is sad. And when I encounter that, I think that is, if parents make a decision not to speak their native language to their offspring because bababa.  Whenever I encounter anybody saying this. You don’t know this. Because I know that the evidence doesn’t support all those fears that they have, right? And also, because the evidence shows things that they are not contemplating, right? They’re not dramatic. But we know there is an entire area of neurolinguistic studies called affective neurolinguistics. And some people are looking at how affect effects language processing and decision making and many things right? And moral judgments anyway, I don’t want to inflate it. But there’s stuff there. So in a way, parents should speak their native language to their children, for affect reasons, because that’s the parents affect language, right? In fact, I think that it is up to them, then you put everything in the balance and then you decide, right? If you decide that the language you grew up with is useless. If this is your decision, this is your decision, right? But it shouldn’t be that you think it’s useless based on something that is false. I think that’s the subtle difference.

[Carine] Yeah. I don’t think my mom thought that Finnish itself was useless. But at the time she was 24 years old. English is her second language. She’s living in this new country. I’m her only her second child. It was probably that she assumed that the teacher knew better than she did. And that’s the reason why she took her word. And I wish there were more people like you who could have just been there, just happened to be passing by and you could have just walked by and say “No”.

[María] As an adult, like when you make that decision for your children, then these children grow and become adults and I’ve encountered so many friends or acquaintances or people in university or outside university, that have missed the opportunity of being raised bilingual or multilingual for these types of decisions. And that they now regret the choice their family made. It’s so sad my family isn’t right. I respect the decision. Obviously, they made it with goodwill, but now is that I could have been raised, or I can’t speak my family’s language. And that has an emotional value, even if it’s not a prestigious language, it has an emotional value that is actually important for individuals.

[Carine] That’s exactly it. Yeah. I think that from everything that we said and what you’ve told us about Basque. Basque, I would say the environment of the amount of speakers and it’s being, you know, especially in Euskadi has really prevailed, but would you consider Basque to be an endangered language that could possibly disappear in the next 50 years?

[Itziar] Well, 50 years? No, I don’t think it will die in 50 years. But if you ask me further into the future. I think most languages of the planet are endangered, in that sense, right? So, we don’t know where we are going to. The future is so mysterious. So, we don’t know whether we are going to a multilingual future. People like me, who are multilingual and one of the languages has a very small community, I think we see clearly that we need a global language, right? So, I am very much in favor of one global language, I don’t care which one it is, right? So whichever, that’s it, but we do need a global language because we have global issues that we have to deal with, as a species. Okay. So, this is very important. So, one global language I hope we will have. Now what’s unclear to me in the more distant future, is whether we will be societies that have these technological capacities that allow them to converse in many languages. Or whether it will be a monolingual-ish future. That I really cannot tell, right? But I am a diehard optimist, you should know anybody who does research is a diehard optimist. A different thing is I want to be awake. And try not to be naive. I am very optimistic. So, if I think about it, I have this illusion, that technology will help us be multilingual. That’s hard to tell, right? Because it’s a sword with two angles. But you know, I don’t know whether you read, because it’s a book for older people but The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

[Carine] Great book.

[Itziar] And there is a fish, a creature there,  that presumably lives in the universe. And that’s the Babel fish, right? The electric fish which you put in your ear, and you can understand the languages immediately. If we got a gadget like that, we wouldn’t even need a global language, right? I think we probably still would need one for other reasons, because then you would have to trust this Babel fish and God knows what intentions it holds. I guess that I think it’s not far fetched to think that we will have gadgets, like the Babel fish. Maybe, who knows? Let me leave with that.

[Carine] It would be nice if we could in some way. Star Trek has something similar, where it’s their universal translator, everyone speaks their home language to each other, but because they have universal translators, they just happen to understand everyone. And that that would be a beautiful thing to exist. Honestly, that would be wonderful.

[María] I think it’s also beautiful, being able to interact in the same language with people from different native languages. I think that has like magic on it as well, as talking in English when, well, in your case, it is your native language, Carine, but for me, it isn’t, nor for Itziar, and I think this is like it has some fun side of it as well. So, both things, in my opinion, both things should be kept.

[Carine] Yeah, I definitely don’t think people should stop learning languages. People should definitely keep learning languages. I think it’s so much fun. And you learn so much about a culture and like a community by learning their language. I think that’s very important, too, yes.
Well, this has been fantastic and really fun. And I really have enjoyed this. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you to all of our listeners. We hope you’ve had just as an amazing time as we have talking with Itziar about her insightful research and everything she has to say about bilingualism and you know, being a global citizen. We also hope you’ve enjoyed learning a bit more about psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics, Basque and language policy. If you’re interested in learning more about Itziar’s research or the research conducted at the Bilingual Mind Research Group, you can find links to their websites in the description. Additionally, if you are in the area and you’d like to take part in their research, you can find their calls for participants in the description as well. Once again, thank you for joining us. Stay tuned for next time until then stay safe, stay healthy, and…

[Itziar] Arrivederci amiche e amici!

[María] Adeus!

[Carine] Hasta luego!

2 thoughts on “S1 E8: Basque – Prof. Itziar Laka

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: