Machine translation obtained using Elia by Elhuyar
Yearbook 2022-23 | Itziar Laka Mugarza (EHUko Hizkuntzalaritza katedraduna)

The old saying tells us water in its thousand years, but it is not true, because the waters themselves also change a lot along the way over time. We live in constant change, in a changing environment. The Basque himself, like all languages, constantly changes without realizing it. Amendment is the most immovable law. I am referring to a reflection on a great change, on how digitization affects Basque and Basque people. And that is that ChatGPT has appeared in the world when I write this, an amazing chatbot that"s in everyone"s mouth. We already live in the era of artificial intelligence. There has been a leap, a truth that cannot be denied here.

Like most great discoveries, artificial intelligence was called before it was. In several books we see the present of our time imagined from the past. This time I want to pick one of them, the funny science fiction book A Hitchicker’s Gide to the Galaxy, which we have not yet translated into Euskera. I always thank the beautiful books that have recommended to my friend Arturo Elosegi, if I have known and enjoyed this book I owe it to Arthur in everything. There lives a special animal, an electric fish, able to translate languages at once. If we put the electric fish in the ear, one of them comprises all the languages of the galaxy, without any problems. The automatic translators that are expanding among us are not as skilled as electric fish, but they are gradually opening the way for electric fish.

Our teachers have certainly announced to us a thousand issues that have not been complied with to those we were students in the last century. One of the safest was that the claim had to do with language and artificial intelligence: automatic translators were impossible, we would not have been able to know them, they would not exist in our future. However, they are here. I often refer to my colleagues when I feel that I forecast the future safely. Until you have a full map of the true neural algorithms of human language, the teachers told us that you can"t create artificial tools to translate from one language to another. They were wrong. And that is, these new tools have not been rooted in the biological algorithms of human language, but in the artificial algorithms of a new land called big-data. They"re tools, they"re for us, they"re not new speakers, they don"t understand language, as they don"t really see the most advanced video camera. It cannot be denied that they are capable of matching languages, which offer us translations that may be useful because they are not perfect, with a significant reduction in translation tasks. We have these tools here, and the Basque country will have to learn to swim between these fish in order to survive. It"s a poetic image, of course, to imagine Euskera swimming like a fish, among the electric fish. The Basque country can hardly do anything if the Basques do not. So we Basques are the ones who are going to have to learn how to navigate the seas of electric fish in order to survive.

We need knowledge to navigate these new seas, build boats, govern them, suffer storms and use the winds. We have to be able to produce electric fish, as we are, and in addition to that knowledge of the digital environment we have to combine it with the knowledge of language, Basque and bilingual. All this knowledge should be used when drawing our maps, as good maps are needed to travel. Here are some splashes of the kind of knowledge that we need to draw those maps, that I"d like to bring to those that we"re going to need.

In the last twenty years, great discoveries have been made in the field of neuroscience to understand how language is formed and processed in the brain. And that is, the knowledge and use of language, in its entirety, is a continuous surfing among the electrical waves that occur in our brains. In these times of virtual worlds it should be remembered that language does not live outside of us, but is born and lives in our meats. Most adult Euskaldunes are bilingual, of a variety of kinds: some dominate the Basque language, others Spanish or French, some of us know two languages since childhood and do not remember their studies, but many remember when and how they learned Basque, Spanish or French. The vasophile Patxi Goenaga told us, for example, that he learned with surprise in a dictionary, as a child, that the word soft bread in Basque, in Spanish, was a strong sound of bread explosion. There are those who, although the mother tongue is the Basque language, feel more comfortable in Spanish or French in adulthood, as they rarely use the Basque language. In our country there are many different languages, and many of us also know a third or fourth language, both English and international.

We live and live in forced bilingualism, in an increasingly reduced world the number of monolinguals and most people know and use more than one language. Our society is bilingual, made up of many bilingual people. That"s why it"s strategic to have a solid, informed knowledge about bilingualism. It is important to know that being bilingual has its works, but also its prizes. Let"s start with prizes, then let"s go to fatigue. This is a new study on bilingualism. In the first half of the last century an opinion was opened that has ended in the circle of convictions believed in the future: that bilingualism is not a natural situation and that it creates obstacles to psychological development. But when he started researching bilingualism seriously and appropriately, we soon learned that bilingualism is totally natural for our brains and that, besides not being an obstacle to psychological development, it has advantages.

In the light of a lot of research, bilinguals do some tasks just a few milliseconds in advance. Well, a few milliseconds? In modern measurements of our brains, a millisecond is a lot. Like many scientific discoveries spreading in society, many advantages of bilingual in the world media are mentioned. There are several works in which this advantage of bilinguals has been found, but not in all types of bilinguals, it is very likely that this advantage will only be reached by those bilinguals who have to move a lot from one language to another throughout the day. This result is very important for the Basques and should have an impact on linguistic and educational policies. The research on bilingualism has eliminated the negative conviction that came beforehand, bilingualism does not harm us in our minds, it has shown us the benefits that subvert and hide that conviction. Another curious consequence of this advantage, which makes us a few milliseconds faster, is the delay of the apparent symptoms of neurodegeneration. Among those with Alzheimer"s, bilingual people show four or five years later the loss of memory, language and identity. Apparently, the daily need to govern languages in the mind enables some of our brain capacities, especially the so-called executive control, that helps us decide what is the key information to make decisions. We have only just begun to learn about this, I am convinced that in the near future many discoveries will be made about bilingualism.

Those of us who know and use more than one language have a challenge that monolinguals have no more: we have to control the language we want to use, mutating the other languages we know. Analyzing how we bilingual people control languages, researcher Mikel Santesteban made an absolutely curious discovery and the then expert who led his thesis, Albert Costa, died too young. In a series of experiments, bilingual participants saw images on computer screens and their job was to name them. In the case of the Basque participants, if they were shown the image of a dog drawn in blue, they had to name it as a dog, and if it was in red. The images were decorated in a way that sometimes followed a blue image another blue image (unchanged), but sometimes followed a blue image a red image (change). The researchers measured how long it took the participants to designate the second figure, always in milliseconds, comparing the first situation (no changes) with the second (change). The difference between the two shows us the cognitive effort needed to change from one language to another.

The unbalanced bilinguals, who have a main language, perform with greater fatigue the change of the weakest language to the main language, from greater to lesser. This effect seems paradoxical: we feel tired more of switching to the main language than to the weakest language. The tiredness that produces the change from one language to another is asymmetric, we spend more time in the change from weak to older, we make the change from main language to weak faster. The greater effort to silence the main language explains this asymmetry: in order to produce a weak language, unbalanced bilinguals must inhibit the main language and they need time, whenever they want to speak again in the main language, to activate the inhibited language, whenever detected in milliseconds. If this is correct, we in the brain must have an impact on the inhibition of the words and structures of the language that bilingual people do not want to use to control our languages. The greater the language in our minds, the greater the force we have to exert, the longer we will need. In the minds of bilingual people, all languages are activated when language is used. Otherwise, of course, nothing should be inhibited. All of these operations go unnoticed in our neural networks, but if we"re tired, or intoxicated, it has happened to all of us that we want to speak in one language and say words from another, and there are affidavits that lose the ability to control languages.

In this sense, it is of vital importance the frequency with which we activate Euskera in our daily lives, as well as the first language used by the eyes or ears. In our landscape, the presentation of languages in the bilingual messages used by the Basque Spanish language is fundamental. If the language that first hits the eye or ear is Spanish, the brain will choose Spanish and inhibit the Basque language, in a few milliseconds, when it realizes nothing. The most effective means of helping the brains of citizens who want to use Euskera to keep Euskera strong and predominant is Euskera (see in the Internet section). Bilingualism is useless in messages that do not bring Euskera first, it does not help us overcome the diglosia. It does the opposite, which leads us to all bilinguals, to balance or unbalance, not to choose or inhibit Euskera. All this, for us to look at, is produced without talking, in silence, hidden in our spirals.

This new century comes with the artificial intelligence revolution, it"s the time of digital tools for language management. If the Basques manage to use Euskera more often, if they keep us from the digital divide, welcome. If a Basque speaker can speak in Basque, if electric fish do most of the translation work, this will increase the use of Basque. The discovery of fire changed us, and this will also change us, according to some. We live in change. The history of the Basque Country has never been an invariable garden isolated from the ancestors; the hand of Irulegi says that if the Basques knew how to use writing, we would like from today’s watchtower that they had used more. When the printing press came up, Etxepare happily launched the primitiae, and we"d like more books from many authors. The age of digitalization doesn"t catch us too much, especially if we look at other minority languages in the world, but there"s no time to lose, if we have electric fish for Euskera, but we can"t walk later. If the digital wave does not touch us like a tsunami, we have to be at the forefront of knowledge, constantly generating, receiving and disseminating knowledge. I know we will.


To learn more:

Adams, Douglas (1979) The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Barker Limited, London.

Fernandez, Beatriz (2021) Thinking about language. Donostia-San Sebastián: Sowing.

Laka, Itziar; Zawiszewski, Adam; Erdozia, Kepa (2009) Processing Basque grammar: Some initial results in Etxepare R., Gómez R., D.O. Lakarra (Ed.) Gorazarre Beñat Komunikabideak ASJU XLIII-1/2, Bilbao, p. 553-564.

Laka, Itziar (2008) About the biological roots of language, Ekaia, 21, p. 141-161.

Laka, Itziar (2014) in the mind of Gabriel Aresti: on learning Euskera and bilingualism. Harri eta Herri 50 years. Forum Presentations 07, Bilbao la Vieja Libros, Bilbao, p. 26-39.

https://eu.wikipedia .org/wiki/ChatGPT