A lost language twin

An Irishwoman’s Diary about minority languages

Young dancers perform at a fiesta in Hernani in the Basque Country. Photograph: Paddy Woodworth

Young dancers perform at a fiesta in Hernani in the Basque Country. Photograph: Paddy Woodworth


Debate surrounding the Irish language has recently been bubbling up again on this page. It is heartening, however, to remember that we are not alone with our minority language challenge. As part of my research into Basque/Spanish language policy with the University of Deusto in Bilbao several years ago I discovered that the tapestry of people who had passionate thoughts and feelings about Basque was as rich and varied as that at home concerning Irish.

Living in an officially bilingual society abroad felt like encountering a long lost twin with whom you discover you have much in common. Yet, as you delve deeper, you realise there are differences.

Basque culture and language suffered repression under Franco’s regime; the region experienced huge emigration in the 19th century, losing at least three-quarters of its population to America; the language came to be regarded as only fit for peasants; Spanish became the language of sophistication and commerce; the cause became political and violent and the language a symbol of identity and freedom. The sentiment behind the phrase tiocfaidh ár lá is still cherished by many who want full independence from Spain.

In contrast to the Gaeltachts, however, the Basque Country is a wealthy, industrialised region; it already had a wealthy merchant class in the 1500s. Its language has been supported constitutionally by the autonomous Basque government since 1978 and is required for a job in the civil service. The exams are not a pushover. Most spend months and years preparing for them.

One other very big difference is that the equivalent of our gaelscoileanna – ikastolas – have been in existence since the 1980s and have proven such a success that in a private university in San Sebastian half the degree courses are offered through Basque.

A strong government policy and a pride in culture and language have obviously helped. Even the word to describe a Basque person – Euskaldun – actually means “Basque-speaker”, so identity is intrinsically linked with their language. Indeed, the Basque language is visible and audible on a daily basis in all walks of life. The conundrum, however, is that while the percentage of people who know Basque has increased the percentage who use it with other Basque speakers in everyday life has decreased.

What’s the point in saying that a language is a way of expressing a nation if the majority of the people who know it aren’t actively speaking it? And how do we peacefully merge the native and non-native speakers without one accusing the other of being a “language snob”? Surely, it’s using the knowledge of the language that matters and not merely having it stored in the language compartment of your brain?

What if we were trying to revive Irish traditional music but it was confined to our classrooms? Why try to sustain such a thing as a native language if it is not going to play an intrinsic part in shaping the nation? And how possible is this if one tries to simultaneously remain open to other nations and play a progressive part in our globalised world?

Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam. If this is true, and I feel it may be, then there is still much work to be done to solve the riddle of how to strengthen any minority language effectively. The Basques have some of the answers, but not all of them. Many people there still feel obliged to learn the language and so are put off by the sense of compulsion. It’s a difficult language for many Spanish speakers to learn and speak. Part of the language movement is politically motivated, which alienates still others.

One of the Basque teaching academies, Zenbat Gara, believes in motivating students to learn the language through enjoyment and concentrates on getting them to experience the culture through activities while actively using and learning the language. Their operation includes a thriving restaurant and the best live music venue in Bilbao. The success rate is high. They may be closer to solving the riddle than most.

We Irish, on the other hand, are in the Basque people’s bad books. The official word on the street is that “the Irish gained their territory and lost their language”, that “the Irish have no pride”. (This from the diehards of the language who have not yet done their research in Ireland as I did there.) The only way I found to counter that was to give them a good blast of the boggiest Connemara Irish I know, throw in a few almighty mallachts and send them on their way. It’s at least one way of keeping the sound of Irish alive.

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