Tag: welsh language

Plans for Welsh-language revitalization: Lessons from and for the Basque Country

Sign promoting the learning of Welsh. Photo by Alan Fryer, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The August 6 edition of Basque-language daily Berria included an interview with Alun Davies, the Welsh Government Minister for Lifelong Learning and Welsh Language. In the interview, Davies speaks about Cymraeg 2050 – the Welsh government’s ambitious plan to double the amount of Welsh speakers, to one million, by 2050.

In the interview, Davies explains that the first stage of the plan is to extend knowledge of the Welsh language, to be followed later by focusing on encouraging people to use it, all as part of a 3-point plan. With 22% of the Welsh population (of approximately 3 million people) enrolled in Welsh-language medium schools at present, the plan seeks first to increase this figure to 30% by 2030 and 40% by 2050. It will then attempt to put mechanisms in place whereby students continue to use Welsh on leaving the school system (with the objective that 70% of all students leaving the school system will be able to speak Welsh), but with the main aim of creating new Welsh speakers. Finally, the plan envisages creating a wider context in which knowledge and use of Welsh are encouraged, especially in the workplace.

For Davies, the Basque experience has been a frame of reference and the Welsh Government can learn much from its Basque counterpart.

See the full Berria article (in Basque) here.

And check out the Welsh Government’s own outlining of the plan here.

Check out Estibaliz Amorrortu’s Basque Sociolinguistics: Language, Society, and Culture, available free to download here.

See, too, The Challenge of a Bilingual Society in the Basque Country, edited by Pello Salaburu and Xabier Alberdi.

 

Old European culture and language finds new home and thrives thousands of miles across the Atlantic: Does this sound familiar?

Do you know the name of a small stateless nation in Western Europe with a vibrant and distinct old culture and language (which predates later languages like English, French, and Spanish), has a flag composed of the colors red, white, and green, and from where people left in the nineteenth century to settle an inhospitable landscape in the Americas, while today their descendants celebrate their cultural heritage by maintaining many of the customs and the language of their forbears?  Got it? Yes… it’s Wales!

The flag of Wales. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

We’ve posted before on the cultural and historical links between the Basque Country and Wales, and we think this is yet another great story that will resonate with people with Basque connections. In 1865, a group of Welsh people settled in Patagonia, Argentina, developing the inhospitable landscape to forge what is today Chubut Province. The capital of Chubut is Rawson (from the Welsh ‘Trerawson’) and other Welsh place names include Puerto Madryn (‘Porth Madryn’ in Welsh), Trelew, and Trevelin. Interestingly, these were all Welsh-speakers, and the settlement was a planned effort to try and establish a new Welsh-speaking community 7,000 miles away from home. Its founders were worried that, with the growing emphasis placed on English, the Welsh language would die out in Wales and thus embarked on this extraordinary journey. To this day, and despite many ups and downs, Welsh exists as a language of everyday use in this part of Argentina, in the area known as Y Wladfa (the Colony), and is strongest in the coastal towns of Gaiman and Trelew, and the Andean settlement of Trevelin. Today, estimates vary on there being anywhere between 5,000 and 12,000 native Welsh-speakers in this area, with a further 25,000 speaking it as their second language. After a number of years through the twentieth century when official Argentinian government policy sought to establish a Spanish-only society, in the last few decades Argentina has embraced what it sees as the general benefits of a multicultural and multilingual society. This has led to a flourishing of the Welsh language, with schools full of learners and newspapers like Y Drafod (established in 1891) and the newer Clecs Camwy (2011).

The flag of Puerto Madryn, representing the Welsh-Argentinian experience. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If you have a spare hour, check out this amazing documentary, in English, Welsh, and Spanish (with subtitles!), made by the BBC Cymru/Wales, about this community.

So what of the Basque connection? Well, apart from the obvious similarities in the immigrant experience as a whole, as we all know, Basques also settled in Argentina. There is a Basque community in Chubut as well, represented by the Centro Vasco Etorritakoengatk in Puerto Madryn and the Centro Vasco del Noreste del Chubut in Trelew. And we know that both the Welsh- and Basque-Argentinians have taken part together in many multicultural events.

While such stories may be somewhat anecdotal to the great “narrative” of the history we are taught more generally, footnotes at best within larger, supposedly more important stories, I do think they are valid examples of the triumph and endurance of the human spirit; of how we as groups cherish our cultures, our minority (and minoritized) languages, and the lengths we go to in order to maintain and extend our community ties via these cultures and languages. And there are many lessons to be learned here for Basque-Americans. Cautionary tales do abound, of course, such as that of the Scottish Gaelic-speaking community in Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada, which numbered around 200,000 people in 1850–helping make Gaelic, in both its Scottish and Irish varieties (the latter found principally in Newfoundland) the third most spoken language in Canada after English and French at the time–but today stands at around 7,000. That said, the Government of Nova Scotia did establish an Office of Gaelic Affairs to support and promote the Gaelic language there and current efforts to revitalize the language include literature and even movies in Gaelic.  Check out the following short documentary movie about the Gaels (Gaelic-speakers) in this regard:

If you’re interested in this topic, you may like our multi-authored work, Language Rights and Cultural Diversity, edited by Xabier Irujo and Viola Miglio. This work addresses the themes of language rights and language protection, and how minority languages contribute to enriching the lives of all those around them (something that is explicitly made clear toward the end of the BBC Cymru/Wales documentary).

 

Why learn a minority language? An inspirational lesson from Wales

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ll have some connection to or interest in Basque culture, however fleeting or incidental that may be. And I’m going to assume that many of you, too, if you don’t speak or understand some Basque, may have toyed with the idea of studying the language at some point, or may even be studying it now. As a native English speaker who learned Basque I routinely get into situations in which people ask why I bothered to learn a minority language in the first place. “What’s the point?” they ask. What’s more, they say, Basque is a “difficult” language to learn, so why go to all that bother?

Bred of Heaven cover

There are some answers to these questions in a wonderful book, in English, which I think can also serve as a source of inspiration and encouragement to anyone thinking about studying or actually studying Basque. It charts one person’s progress in studying a minority language, in this case another supposedly “difficult” tongue: Welsh. Published originally in 2011, Bred of Heaven: One Man’s Quest to Reclaim his Welsh Roots, by Jasper Rees, is a funny, charming, and poignant account of how one English speaker decided to learn Welsh, as well as learn as much as he could about Welsh culture in general. And the parallels for those of us, especially native English speakers, who have studied, are studying, or are thinking about studying Basque are obvious. Indeed, the two examples I mention below from the book–one negative, one positive–mirror my own experiences of studying Basque in the Basque Country.

First, there is the thorny issue of an “outsider” meeting Welsh people themselves who do not speak Welsh and see no particular point in speaking or studying it – a not untypical and always dispiriting phenomenon for the adult learner of minority (and minoritized) languages.

I’ve been learning Welsh for a few months now, but I’ve yet to have a conversation in Welsh in Wales. Something is holding me back. It’s not just common-or-garden self-consciousness . . . There’s a political dimension to my anxiety too. The overarching fear is that you summon up the courage to ask a question in Welsh, spend an age building the sentence in the language lab in your head . . . and then you go and waste it on a very Welsh-looking person who is di-Gymraeg: a Welsh non-Welsh speaker. In the minefield of the two Waleses, you can very easily cause offence.

However, I’m learning to play the percentages. There are parts of Wales where you can be fairly certain of not being understood . . . In a Black Mountains pub I meet a chirpy old waitress from Pontypool who chats with classical Welsh abandon about her health. I mention I’m learning Welsh. It’s as if I’ve slapped her violently across the face, then spat in her eyes. ‘Oh, are you?’ she sniffs peremptorily, turning her back on me. ‘Nobody speaks Welsh around here,’ she says over her shoulder as she struts out. Her implication is clear: if I were you I wouldn’t bother.

Then there are, though, more uplifting experiences. One afternoon, Rees sets off on a hike in the hills of Carmarthenshire (Sir Gaerfyrddin or Sir Gâr in Welsh), but soon gets lost. Seeking a shortcut to his intended destination, he hurriedly walks past a farm on private land but, on hearing voices behind him, turns around and heads back to a not particularly friendly looking couple in their sixties staring at him.

‘Where are you going?’ It’s the hunched figure of the farmer who calls back. He’s come out of the barn.

‘Over the hill to Caio.’

‘This is private land here.’

‘I’m very sorry. I didn’t realise.’ If I’m honest I did realise.

‘But if you keep on up you get to the path by there.’ He points begrudgingly up the hill, not quite having the heart to send me all the way down into the valley and round. I don’t know how it happens, but the permission kicks a tripwire in my brain.

‘Diolch yn fawr iawn,’ I say. Thank you very much indeed. The farmer’s wife pipes up.

‘Dych chi’n siarad Cymraeg?’ She wants to know if I speak Welsh.

‘Dw i’n dysgu ar hyn o bryd.’ I’m learning at the moment. Then something marvellous happens. Two stony weathered faces crease into the warmest, broadest smiles. It’s as if these few words have raised a portcullis and I’ve passed through to a sunlit inner sanctum.

. . . I suddenly feel I’ve cracked it. I am on the right path.

Check out this article about the book, and for more on Jasper Rees, click here.

Coincidentally, a delegation from the Welsh further education  sector visited the Basque Country recently in order to share good practice on bilingualism in  the post-16 education and training sector. See the delegation’s  fascinating daily blog posts about this four-day visit, which reveal much about just how much progress is being made in regard to sustaining and developing Basque in the education and training sectors, here, here, here, and here.

The CBS publishes a number of books about various aspects of the Basque language. Basque Sociolinguistics: Language, Society, and Culture, by Estibaliz Amorrortu, is a great introduction. It takes a brief look at the history of Basque, outlines its main characteristics, and discusses several issues concerning the language such as gender, social identity, language maintenance/revitalization, and ethnicity. What’s more the book is available free to download here.

The Challenge of a Bilingual Society in the Basque Country, edited by Pello Salaburu and Xabier Alberdi, picks up on many of these same themes and discusses them in more detail. Topics covered include how a legal system is shaped to reflect a bilingual society, the search for and implementation of a standard form of Basque, and the current state of the language (how many people can speak it,  how many people actually use it, and so on),

In The Dialects of Basque, meanwhile, Koldo Zuazo introduces readers to the rich dialectical variation in the language, including a new and groundbreaking classification for these dialects. And Zuazo also makes a case for demonstrating that mutual comprehension among speakers of the different dialects is not as difficult as has previously been assumed.

If you’re interested in studying Basque, check out Alan King’s The Basque Language: A Practical Introduction and Linda White’s two-volume Aurrera! A Textbook for Studying Basque (also available in separate volumes). And a great accompaniment to these grammars is The CBS-Morris Compact English-Basque/Basque-English Dictionary-Hiztegia.