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.

 

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for linking to our blog on the Welsh delegation to the Basque country. We’re glad you found it of interest. The visit proved to be very insightful visit for us. Diolch! Eskerrik asko!

    • katu

      November 20, 2015 at 7:46 am

      Diolch! I would definitely recommend reading the blog to get a fascinating glimpse into the multiple ways that many people are working to create a normal, everyday context in which languages like Welsh and Basque can survive and thrive.

      Hwyl fawr! Agur!

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