Featured Linguist: Itziar Laka
As a child, I always thought I would grow up to be the kind of biologist that goes to Africa to film wild animals. Either that, or a novelist. Becoming a linguist was not part of the landscape, since I had no notion then of what a linguist did. However, I grew up in a place and a time where language was a constant and relentless issue: the dictator Francisco Franco was alive, his regime in full force.
There were many stories that had language at their heart when I grew up, too many to tell here. There was for instance the story of how grandmother Damiana, my fathers mum, had spent a night in jail because she had been caught speaking Basque in the streets of Bilbao to an acquaintance who came from her village and could not speak Spanish. That night in jail left a mark that never went away. On my mother’s side, there were books hidden first, then burnt, forbidden books whose crime was the language they were written in.
Even my school was clandestine and forbidden, it did not have a fixed location. We left in the morning with a book and a folding chair, to the home of whoever’s turn it was. Then, for a week or so, the folding chairs would unfold in your living room and that would be school. I cannot thank enough the brave unassuming women who taught us. They were truly risking it all in their quiet, humble, daily work. It is hard to explain what it is like to have your language forbidden. It definitely makes you very aware of it.
Time went on, and while I kept dreaming of the documentaries I’d film in the Savanna, or the fantastic novels I would write, Franco’s regime weakened: the clandestine nomadic school became a building, I was in high school now. A Latin teacher who constantly screwed up sentence analysis is my first memory of syntax, but not a good one. Language seemed just plain uninteresting. Then a new teacher came to school and brought a book that described parts of Basque grammar using phrase-structure rules and transformations. This was it for me. That was the coolest thing I had ever set eyes on: it worked! It predicted! It was like clockwork! I became fascinated, argued with the teacher, worked at home to find the best answer to the unsolved parts of the puzzle. The author of that book, Patxi Goenaga, would later be a professor and then a colleague. That was it for me, I would study language.
As an undergraduate, I was very lucky. The University of the Basque Country had just opened, and highly motivated people came to teach, full of ideals. Among them there was Koldo Mitxelena, a historical linguist and true scholar who attracted young enthusiastic professors. I was very lucky because instead of “being taught”, I was shown how one should “find out”. These were times of change and excitement. But I was living a double life: officially I was a philologist, studying the effects of purism in Basque literature; secretly, I kept reading (better say trying to read) books by Noam Chomsky, the man who made the amazing claim that language was in our heads. Finally, my secret early passion for generative grammar bloomed, and this happened by sheer luck again: a new professor named Pello Salaburu came to teach during the last semester of my last year. All the piled up questions could finally be asked. Salaburu asked me would I like to go to MIT? That was more than I had ever dared to dream.
Boston, the linguistics department and MIT itself was like living in another, very distant planet from what I had known. It opened my mind in ways that would not haven been possible otherwise. The first year was so hard that I would come home and sit in front of the TV exhausted: they would talk so I could continue learning English, but no one expected me to reply. Mastering the language was hard, I could not for the life of me understand what all these people were saying. I learned to follow body movements so I could nod if someone spoke with a nodding attitude, and shake my head when I perceived a head shaking. I was hilarious to my classmates, of course, confusing words and playing a kind natural Pictionary all day long. But in the end I learned a little, I worked harder than I thought it was possible and finished a dissertation on negation. Graduate time at MIT is full of stories and memories, impossible to tell them here and now: friendship, love, conversations, personal transformation, discoveries, awakenings…
Once I graduated, I still felt I knew too little to go back home. I joined the linguistics department at the University of Rochester, where I could extend my omnivorous curiosity to psycholinguistics and other areas of cognitive science. I had wonderful colleagues like Tom Bever, Elissa Newport, Greg Carlson, and graduate students who were bright and motivated friends from whom I learned a lot. I spent five wonderful years at the University of Rochester; then I decided it was time to go back and give back. Either I went back then, after nine years in the US, or I would never do it.
I went back to the University of the Basque Country in 1996, after a visiting period in Holland (NIAS and Utrecht) for which I will always be grateful. Going back home, the first years were tough: small daughter to raise, heaviest teaching load with the subjects no one wanted to teach… hard work, time and patience slowly changed things bit by bit and today I am a full professor and I direct a research group where we combine theoretical linguistics with the experimental methods of psycholinguistics, to study language and bilingualism. You can find out more about us here:
The linguistic landscape I grew up in has totally changed: Basque and Spanish are both official languages, and Basque is present in the media, schools, university, government… I teach in English, Spanish and Basque, a big distance away from the imposed monolingualism of my childhood times. I strongly believe linguists are important people. Our research can help us know more about how languages can coexist in peace, both in mind and in society, increasing justice and human well being across the globe.