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Bilingualism in the Basque Country Spain

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 3631 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Agur the first time I heard this word I lived in San Sebastian, Basque Country, Spain. It is Basque and it means bye. When I laid on the beach some weird language I could not understand was spoken over the public address system and after that language followed a Spanish speaking lady saying that a child had been found. I was fascinated by this language, how can it be that it is so different from all the other languages I know? When I heard about the paper subjects I immediately knew I wanted to find out more about the Basque language and the bilingual system in the Basque Country in Spain. In this paper I will discuss the multilingual history of Spain, describe the situation of the Basque language in the Basque country and I will develop more about the educational systems to stimulate Basque language proficiency. I hope to give the reader an insight in the Basque educational system, the Basque Country itself and in the multilingual history of Spain. This paper consists out of a literature review on the basis of earlier studies because it was hard to find evidence on my own.

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At first this paper will describe the history of multilingualism in Spain, has the Spanish government always allowed bilingual education? Which co-official languages exist in Spain? Then a closer look will be taken on the Basque Country: a description of the area will be given, percentages of bilingual speakers, the attitude of Basque speakers towards Basque; why and when do they speak the language? In the next paragraph the educational models that were created by the Basque government will be described. These models were created to improve the second language proficiency in Basque for Spanish-speakers. An overview will be given of the three existing educational models. Finally a paragraph will discuss the attitude of Basque speakers and non-Basque speakers; where is Basque mostly spoken? Why there? Has the number of students studying Basque increased of decreased? This paper will be ended with a conclusion which sums up all the major findings of this paper.

History multilingualism Spain

Spain, as we know it today, is a multilingual country. It consists out of seventeen autonomous communities. Six of these communities (Catlonia, the Valencian Community, the Balearic islands, Galicia, the Basque Country and Navarre) recognize a language of their own which is, together with Spanish, the official language in their territory. All Spanish autonomous communities have received legislative power in some areas. One of those areas is education, so the Spanish autonomous communities can adapt their own rules on education. So all the six communities with their own language can offer education in this language. This sounds all very positive; the possibility to teach children in the ‘minority’ language and to have the ‘minority’ language recognized as being an official language.

Yet the ‘life story of multilingualism’ has not always been like this. Thanks to historical developments, we can speak of the multilingual country Spain, but multilingualism used to be forbidden during the dictatorship of General Franco (1939-1975). After the Civil War (1936-1939) General Franco came in power and this put an end to the second republic. During Franco’s regime he declared Spanish as the only official language, and Franco forced the minority languages to disappear from the public domains; they could not be used in the media, public administration nor in education. The use of the languages was limited to domestic use, the people could only speak their language in their homes and not on the street, at work or other public places. When Franco’s regime came to an end, Spain established a democracy and a new Constitution was passed (1978). Many new regulations were adapted and the new Statues of Autonomy were passed. These statues divided Spain in the following autonomous communities: Aragón, Asturias, the Balearic Islands, the Basque Country, the Canary Islands, Cantabria, Castilla-La Mancha, Castilla-Leon, Catalonia, Ceuta and Melilla, Extremadura, Galicia, La Rioja, Madrid, Murcia and Navarra. The country was not only divided into different areas, some areas also retrieved an official status for their own language, which was the case for Catalan, Basque and Galician. Spanish became the official language of the Spanish state, but the autonomous communities can have an own official language next to Spanish. This meant that all the minority languages in Spain were acknowledged. Nowadays Catalonia, Valencia, the Balearic Islands, the Basque country and Galicia have two official languages; Spanish and the official language of their territory.

All the Parliaments of the above mentioned communities together created the Laws of Linguistic Normalization in 1983. This was a reaction on the regime of Franco. The laws not only gave minority languages the co-official status next too Spanish, but also the right to know and use the other language in any context, the principle of no discrimination on linguistic grounds and control of the educational system, culture and media to the autonomies (Huguet et al. 2008). Another aim of the Laws of Linguistic Normalization is to ensure that students have a balanced command of Spanish and their second language by the time they leave school. This aim has led to Catalan, Valencian, Balearic, Navarrese, Basque and Galician educational systems to create bilingual schools where mother tongue Spanish speakers can develop their language competence in the minority language (Lasagbaster and Huguet, 2007, Huguet, et al 2008). During the last twenty years bilingual education has increased in Spain. The Laws of Linguistic Normalization give autonomies the right to develop their own educational systems following a bilingual criteria. A description of the educational system in the Basque Country can be found on p. 8 of this paper.

Figure Map of Spanish bilingual communities

In figure 1 (Huguet, et al 2008) the communities with their own official language besides Spanish are highlighted: the Balaeric islands (where Catalan is spoken), the Basque Country and Navarre (where Basque is spoken) , Galicia (where Galician is the minority language) and Valencia (where Valencian is spoken). The autonomous communities of Aragon (where both Catalan and Aragonese are spoken) and Asturias (where Asturias is spoken) are also added to the figure. In Aragon and Asturias the minority languages have no legal status.

Tabel Percentage of inviduals who ‘can understand’ and ‘can speak’ the minority language (Huguet et al, 2008)



The Balearic Islands


The Basque Country


Individuals who can ‘understand’








Individuals who can ‘speak’ (active)







This table shows an enormous difference between the communities. In Catalonia, Valencia, the Balearic Islands and Galicia over 90% of the population can understand the minority language and many (although less than 90%) can also speak the minority language. Yet in the Basque Country and Navarra the percentages are much lower, less than 50% of the population can understand the minority language and even a lower percentage can speak it. But in the case of the Basque Country, many things are done to improve the situation of the minority language as we will discuss in the next paragraphs.

The Basque country

The Basque country covers an area of approximately 20,742 square kilometres and is divided into seven provinces: three belonging to the French ‘Pyrenées Atlantiques’ community (Lapurdi, Nafarroa, Beherea and Zuberoa), and four to two autonomous regions in Spain (The Basque Autonomous Community and Navarre). In this paper the situation of the Basque Autonomous Community (BAC) will be described. The total Basque population exists out of 3 million inhabitants, with 92% being Spanish citizens. In the BAC live around 2.1 million inhabitants, of which 24.7% are bilingual and 16.3% are passive bilingual. Basque is a minority language spoken by only 27% of the population. The Basque language is the only non-Indo-European language in Western Europe and although the language has been in touch with many Roman languages (Spanish, French, Catalan), it is completely unrelated to them. This is probably one of the most important reasons why so few people of the Basque population (almost 60%) do not understand Basque at all. The language differs so much from Spanish and other Roman languages in Spain that it has no interface with other languages in the country.

Spanish is the first official and dominant language in BAC, so that makes all Basque speakers bilingual because they speak Spanish and Basque. Since Spanish is also the dominant language is makes proficiency in Basque not necessary in many areas. (Perez Vidal, ..) The monolingual Spanish speakers in the BAC do not necessarily need the Basque language to survive in the BAC. Everyone around them speaks English, in formal settings the language spoken is mostly Spanish, the media mostly publishes in Spanish, and so everything around them is in Spanish. This especially counts for the bigger cities, such as Bilbao or San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque). In smaller villages in the country side there are more people who speak Basque and speaking Basque becomes more of a necessity.

Thanks to the promotion of Basque in schools there has been an increase of 95,000 Basque speakers from 1981 to 1991 (Garmendia 1994, Perez Vidal ..) and in the next decade (1991-2001) the percentage of bilinguals in the range of 16-24 years old has almost doubled, from 25% to 48% (Gobierno Vasco, 2003; Huguet 2008). Basque is in the process of ‘reversing language shift’ (Fishman 1991, Cenoz 2005). Reversing language shift is putting a stop to the declining use of a language and increasing its status in the population. Joshua Fishman created eight steps in which a dead or threatened language can be brought back to ‘life’. The Basque language is in the process of being revitalised.

The Basque language is used more and more by the Basque population and the attitudes towards the language are increasingly positive. Basque is used as a medium of instruction, on the Basque television channel, on the Basque radio and in Basque newspapers. Even though the use of the Basque language increases, the other official language of BAC, Spanish, is used more for these purposes. So Basque is present in the media of the BAC, yet Spanish takes a bigger role and is more used in the Basque media. But a high percentage of Bascophones do use the media in Basque; 77% of the Basque bilinguals listen to the Basque radio and 82% watches the Basque television (Cenoz 2005).

Bascophones speak Basque in the private domain and they tend to use Spanish for formal settings. Bascophones use Basque to talk to their children, and mostly use Spanish to communicate with other family members. The factors that influence the usage of Basque are: the number of Bascophones in the subject’s social networks, the relative ease with which the subject has to use Basque and Spanish, and the number of Bascophones in the sociolinguistic area where the subject lives. (Euskararen Jarraipena I 1995 cited in Cenoz 2005: page 43).

So even though the Basque language is growing in popularity, it is remarkable to see that Bascophones prefer to use Basque in their domestic area and speak Spanish in more formal settings.

Basque in education

Bilingual education has been present in the Basque educational system since the 19th century. Some schools were bilingual or even trilingual (i.e. Spanish, Basque and French). Spanish schools are either public or private. Public schools are usually fully or partially funded by the Spanish government so parents do not have to pay a lot of money for their children attending school, private schools are not financed by the government, which means that parents have to pay more money if they want their children to study there.

During the 1960s a number of private Basque schools (ikastolas) were founded. The ‘ikastolak’ schools are created as a promotion tool for the usage of Basque in education, and even though in the 1960 it was illegal to use Basque in education, the number of students increased over the years. Today most of the ‘ikastolak’ are part of the ‘Ikastolen Elkartea’, which is a covering body preoccupied with the promotion of different projects to improve the quality of education (in kindergarten, primary and secondary education). With the Law of Linguistic Normalization both Basque and Spanish became compulsory subjects at school and three models of bilingual education were created. These models are based on the assumption that bilingual education has important advantages. For example, bilingual education can have a positive effect on cognitive development and communication ability. Bialystok found that bilingual children were superior to monolingual children on measures of the cognitive control of linguistic processes. (Bialystok 1978b cited in Baker, 2006: page 157)

The three different bilingual models in the BAC are: Model A, B, and D. (The ‘C’ does not exists in Basque).

Model A: This model is intended for mother tongue speakers of Spanish who want instructions in Spanish. All subjects are in Spanish, except for Basque, which is taught four to five hours a week.

Model B: This model is intended for mother tongue speakers of Spanish who want to be bilingual in Spanish and Basque. Both languages are used as languages of instruction for 50% of the school time.

Model D: The model was intended as a maintenance program for the Basque, but many Spanish students are studying according to this model as well. Basque is the language of instruction and Spanish is taught as a subject for four to five hours a week. Model D schools can be seen as both total immersion programmes for majority language (Spanish) students and first language maintenance programmes for native Basque speakers.

Parents can choose the model they want for their children and both models are available at public and private schools.

From 1983/1983 to 2004/2005 the amount of pre-university students enrolled in Model A has decreased from 415.456 (79.34%) to 81.603 (26.69%), yet Model B has increased from 44.458 (8.49%) to 69.941 (22.88%) but Model D has increased the most: from 63.699 (12.17%) to 154.164 (92%). The majority of all the pupils (92%) are enrolled in Models B and D. (Huguet et al 2008) In Table 2 we see the number of students in the different models in the BAC in the year 2001-2002. At every level, either kindergarten, primary school or at compulsory secondary school the highest amount of students is studying according to model D, where Basque is the language of instruction and Spanish is a subject. Model B is the runner up, where both languages are languages of instruction, and the lowest amount of students study in Model A, where Spanish is the language of instruction and Basque is taught as a subject. This shows the trend that a lot of students choose to study Basque and that the language its popularity is growing. (p.t.o. for table)

Table Number of students in Models A,B, and D in the BAC (2001-2002)

Model A

Model B

Model D


Kindergarten and primary school





(3- 12 year-old children)





Compulsory secondary school





(12-16 year-old children)





Language attitude

The status of the Basque language has increased during the last fifty years. The number of students studying Basque has increased and this influences the number of bilinguals in the BAC. But there still seems to be a gap between the knowledge and the use of Basque in daily life. As mentioned before: Basque can be found in education and in the media, yet Spanish is still the prevailing language. Bascophones usually tend to use their language in the home situation and not in more formal settings. It is remarkable that more and more native Spanish speakers decide to study Basque (in either Model B or D schools), yet Basque is still a domestic language. Spanish is still the dominant language in the BAC, the use of Basque in daily life is limited to areas that are dominated by Bascophones.

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Maybe the language attitude towards the Basque language has an influence on the use of Basque. Lasagabaster (2005) has done a research on this subject; ‘Attitudes towards Basque, Spanish and English’. He defined attitudes with the words of Skehan (1989): attitudes are part of the so-called affective variables of language learning, together with personality, motivation, the learner’s expectations, social cultural experience or anxiety. Lasagabaster states that attitudes are a key factor in sociolinguistics and language learning. He used 1087 participants, all undergraduates in the age range of 18-50 and all studying at university. The participants studied at one of the three campuses in which the university of the BAC is divided: Arba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa. Lasagabaster found that the degree in competence in Basque influenced the students’ attitudes towards Basque; very competent students had a more positive attitude than those with little or good demand of the language. The same counts for Spanish, if a students speaks very well Spanish, the attitude towards the language will be more positive than the attitude of someone whose Spanish is of a lower level.

He also found that students living in a dominant Basque-speaking area (such as small towns) are more favourable towards the Basque language than those who live in dominant Spanish-speaking areas (such as big cities).This can be explained by the migration from Spanish workers to the BAC on the labor market. The younger generation in the BAC tends to use Spanish instead of Basque. This can be explained by the fact that majority languages usually seem to be ‘cooler’ than the minority languages to the teenagers, therefore they prefer to speak Spanish.


Schools should try to intervene in the attitude towards Basque. They should try to create language awareness courses to change the attitudes towards the minority language. Teachers could do this by showing the students how ‘rich’ the world becomes with so many different languages. A positive attitude towards Basque is increasing, but more should be done to change the status of Basque as ‘minority language’ in its own territory. The government should try to change the language attitude towards Basque. The heritage of Franco (the use of domestic Basque) should be disinherited. The Bascophones should feel that they can also use their own language outside their homes and use it at work or on the street. But therefore more people should learn Basque, because otherwise only a small amount of colleagues would understand the Bascophones. By implementing more Basque on educational and media level the usage of Basque will grow. More people will be forced to speak or learn Basque and the attitude towards the language will increase positively even more. It will not only be dominant in the smaller villages, but also in the bigger cities. As a result the language will be everywhere and the native Spanish speakers who studies Basque will learn the language with more ease. The only risk of so many non-native Basque speakers is that they will influence the language and add a Spanish influence to the grammar or lexical level.

Unfortunately, attitudes are difficult to change. The attitude towards Basque has been negative under the leadership of Franco (which lasted for almost 40 years) and to changing this attitude immediately is impossible. It takes small baby steps, but those baby steps are heading the right way.

In the example of Spain we can see that there is a political influence on language education and attitude. During Franco’s regime the use of minority languages in public was forbidden, this influenced the attitudes towards the minority languages. Nowadays Basque is still not used often in formal settings, Bascophones tend to use Basque for domestic use and Spanish in formal settings. Most of the media in the BAC are in Spanish and not in Basque. It seems that Franco’s regime still has an impact on the use of the Basque language in formal settings.

But to close of with a positive note: bilingualism in the Basque country has come a long way. Basque used to be forbidden and nowadays the attitude towards the language is growing positively. More and more students are attending model D schools, schools where the language of instruction is Basque and Spanish is taught as a subject. Although the situation of Basque is improving, there are still few people who speak the language, but thanks to the increase of students the number of bilinguals in the BAC also increases. Hopefully this will prevent Basque becoming a dead language and remain a vivid language.


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