Parallels from Euskadi, the Basque Country

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Parallels from Euskadi, the Basque Country Empty Parallels from Euskadi, the Basque Country

Post  MH on Fri 28 Nov 2008 - 1:56

There was an interesting article in the Western Mail last week by Catrin Dafydd of Cymdeithas yr Iaith:

A delegation from Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg recently visited the Basque country to see what people there are doing to keep their language alive. Of all minority languages, the Basque language – or Euskara – has most in common with Welsh. There are about 600,000 Euskara-speakers in a country with a population of about three million.

From the moment you land in Bilbao, you notice a stark linguistic contrast to our own situation, with visual examples of stronger language legislation – bilingual signs are the norm and the co-operative supermarket chain Eroski provides own-brand packaging with instructions in up to five languages. You are quickly made aware of the fact that in Euskadi – the autonomous community of the Basque country – citizens have a legal right to use the language in the public and (more recently) private and voluntary sectors. Because of this, companies such as EMUN have been set up to assist all kinds of private companies as they develop effective responses to language rights. Companies are awarded certificates to show customers that staff are able to provide services in Euskara.

Moreover, the Observatory of Linguistic Rights provides a free phone service allowing people to log complaints when these rights are infringed. The complaints are then catalogued and presented to the government.

Lawyers working on behalf of Euskara Kultur Eskargoa are also responsible for representing Basque-speakers in courts of law. A system of defending peoples’ linguistic rights is an alien concept for us in Wales – currently we can only use Welsh in the courts under fairly limited circumstances.

Kontseilua is an umbrella group of 45 societies and institutions which campaign on linguistic matters. Most of these groups are indirectly funded by public money, yet they are happy to challenge and criticise government policy where necessary in order to promote the normalisation of the Basque language.

The government acts as a champion, not only passing legislation, but also taking responsibility to ensure it is implemented. There is a dialogue between institutions and government, in a country where the fact that independent bodies are ready to offer a critique of the linguistic legislative system is welcomed.

Is this a picture of what we should be doing in Wales? I think it contains the sort of elements we would expect from the Welsh Government if it had freedom to make such legislation on its own. But of course we don't have the competence to make such laws, and the LCO we are negotiating with Westminster will of necessity be a compromise.

However it does contain certain elements which we are likely to get. The key is likely to be the establishment of the concept of legal language rights, and the related idea that Government "acts as a champion, not only passing legislation, but also taking responsibility to ensure it is implemented." Even if the scope of a Welsh Language Commissioner is limited, as seems likely, to the public sector and large companies supplying essential services, there is no reason why such scope cannot be extended later.


On the WalesOnLine forum there was this link:

Which pointed to some even more remarkable parallels between Euskari and Cymraeg: the same misconceptions and intolerance. For example, the idea that the English word "shepherd" applies to anyone who also herds other animals; or that "Euskera just isn't used in real life."

Most of those misconceptions (... or is it just too readily reported misinformation?) are refuted more eloquently than I could in the responses by Patxi Baztarrika, Aitor Sotes, John Bieter, Mikel Morris and Pete T. Cenarrusa.

For my part I would like to comment on the situation regarding Basque in schools. The article starts with:

Rosa Esquivias is caught on the front line of the Basques' fight for independence from Spain. Actually, she's in the front row -- of her Basque language class.

Ms. Esquivias, a 50-year-old high-school math teacher and Spanish-speaking native of Bilbao, must learn Basque or risk losing her job. Like her nine classmates, including a man who teaches Spanish to immigrants, she has been given at least a year off with pay to spend 25 hours a week drilling verbs and learning vocabulary in Euskera.

"For the job I do, I think learning the language is clearly over the top," Ms. Esquivias says.

Starting next year, students entering public school will be taught only in Basque.
This isn't true quite true. Since 1992, rather like the A, B and E categories in Welsh education, Basque education has these categories:

A - 26.2% of students. Education is entirely in Spanish, with Basque as a compulsory subject.
B - 23.0%. Education is partly in Basque, partly in Spanish (usually mathematics and reading/writing).
D - 50.2%. Education entirely in Basque, with Spanish as a compulsory subject.
From this document the A category includes 4 hours per week of Basque lessons, which is quite a bit higher than the Welsh second language (short GCSE) equivalent. So they have a system in which the majority already choose Basque-medium education, and another quarter choose bilingual education. The real reason Ms. Esquivias needs to learn Basque is because there is so little parental demand for Spanish-medium education.

However the A, B, D system is due to come to an end (there is also an X option, Spanish only education, but only 0.6% choose it) because it is not producing good enough results.

The Basque Education system is facing one of its most important challenges: the reform of the current language models.

The Education councillor of the Basque Government, Tontxu Campos, suggested to substitute the current models (A, education in Spanish with Basque language as a single subject; B, some subjects in Spanish and some others in Basque; and D, education in Basque), for a "framework of multilingual learning and teaching" in which Basque is the main driving language and centres have the freedom to design their own projects.

The lines A, B and D have been running since 1992 (15 years) and almost all agents agree they are overused and don't guarantee that pupils have a good command of Basque language when they finish compulsory education.

That is why the future aim will be that pupils master the language at 16 and are able to speak both Basque and Spanish fluently, are "independent speakers" able to understand, talk and write in both languages.

... it will come into force in 2008-09 on the first course of Primary Education. The new framework will be progressively adapted in 10 years.
The parallels again are remarkable. The aim is obvious: that the over-riding consensus is for the school system to ensure that all children are fully bilingual. So, if teaching Basque as a second language in a Spanish-medium school fails to produce the desired result, it's quite reasonable to change the system so it does.


Turning to Wales, we are still some way behind. At present we are talking about a quarter of pupils in Welsh-medium education, and not many in bilingual schools. Yet recent surveys show the demand is higher, and the problem is trying to keep pace with that demand. But I think that Wales is probably only ten years behind.

The thing that matters most is political will. At present we simply don't have enough teachers to keep pace with demand. As Aitor Sotes said:

The teachers that the author mentions in his article have had the opportunity to learn Euskara for free during work hours for 2 to 3 years with a full salary paid by the Basque Government. After this period these teachers didn’t pass the required exam: Is that discrimination?
Now, it is true that courses are available in Wales to train teachers to teach in Welsh. Such as this. But only 72 teachers have passed through the Welsh Language Sabbatical Pilot Scheme so far, and it is designed for those who are already fairly fluent. Instead the emphasis seems to be more on initial teacher training rather than those who are already in the profession.

The last thing I would want to see is teachers becoming unemployable in ten, fifteen or twenty years' time because they can't teach in Welsh. This means that we must put resources into teaching teachers how to teach in Welsh now, and I would suggest that making it part of the normal Continuing Professional Development programme, particularly for teachers who are now under 40 years old, is the best way of doing it.

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