The Faces of the Basque Country in the World

The Basque language and culture is projected to the university world with 34 readerships or language assistantships (positions for teaching the Basque language and culture) that the Etxepare Institute maintains in 18 countries

by Nerea Azurmendi

Ainhoa, Aitor, Leire, Iker, Leonat… If the list continued it would reach 34 names, the complete staff of readers or teachers of the Basque language and culture who, in that many universities, provide dozens of students, with diverse backgrounds and interests, the opportunity to get to know a culture and a language that, since the 19th century, has captivated many foreign linguists. A language and a culture which, in the 21st century, is still arousing unusual interest if one takes into account its reduced implementation and the limited utilitarian value outside its small community of speakers.

Miren Arzalluz, Director of the Etxepare Institute. Etxepare

34 assistantships in 18 countries on three continents may seem meager if compared to the studies of the Catalan language and culture promoted by the Ramon Llull Institute in 150 universities, more than 100 of which are in Europe. And clearly, these fade in comparison next to the hundreds of positions of Spanish teachers that Spain maintains in universities and higher education around the world, through the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation for Development, integrated into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation. As can be read in the announcement of its 70th edition, corresponding to the 2017-2018 schoolyear, scholarships and readerships of the aforementioned ministry “have been strengthened as one of the most coveted of Spanish foreign policy instruments.” If this network of assistantships is an important tool for the third most spoken language in the world, it’s easy to imagine the value for a linguistic community like the Basque one which could fit, in its entirely, in say, a city the size of Detroit.

With a model similar to the Catalan system, in the Basque Country these readerships are currently managed by an agency responsible for the international promotion of the Basque language and culture, the Basque Etxepare Institute, which among its functions maintains the objective “to promote the teaching of the Basque language and expand its recognition” and “help spread the Basque culture in all of its forms of expression”. Before the Etxepare Institute was fully operational, the program of assistantships for Basque language and culture was under the Basque Government’s Department of Promotion of the Basque Language, which established it between 2004 and 2005. In fact, one of the tasks which that department had been entrusted with was “to increase the presence of Basque also abroad, strengthening cooperation with the Euskal Etxeak (Basque Centers) and the program for readership positions in universities, among other things.”

In those years dating back to the first readerships, as precursors, they were established in 2004 in two Chilean universities, the University of Chile and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, both in Santiago, or those who began operating in 2004-2005 at the University of Valencia, at the Free University of Berlin and at the University of Helsinki in Finland.

A Long Tradition

The chain, however, began much earlier. On the 250th anniversary of his birth, it seems inevitable to remember Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), the man who ignited in Europe the flame of interest in that strange pre-Indo-European language which remained alive in the Iberian Peninsula and on the other side of the Pyrenees, the prolific Prussian who dove into the subject with ‘kantabrische oder baskische Sprache’, (Cantabrian language or Basque), in search of the origins of European languages. The fact that 2017 is also the 200-year anniversary of the publication of his first work on the Basque language makes this an even more relevant reference. Without his imprint, and his enthusiastic support for the Basque-Iberian theory, which, thanks to his endorsement, reached great popularity in the scientific community and European University at the time, it would not be easy to understand the subsequent emergence of foreign basqueologists (scholars of the Basque language) or the consequent extension of Basque studies to the most prestigious universities in Europe.

Celebration of the Basque Language at the Readership at UNAM in Mexico. Etxepare

As Idoia Estornés Zubizarreta remembered in the full article on the history of the Basque University written for Auñamendi Eusko Entziklopedia, during the first half of the 20th century, Basque Studies were present in about 30 European universities, from Oxford to Saint Petersburg. Under the responsibility of famous local scholars, studies about the language which fascinated linguists, found a place in the most reputable academic institutions of the time. First, the Spanish Civil War and then World War II, as well as the isolation in which Spain remained for decades, and the undoubted anti-Basque attitude of the Francoist regime, made the splendor of the first decades of the last century, as well as the interest in the Basque language and in Basque issues diminish considerably. Still, the network somehow revived, and Basque Studies programs began to pop up at numerous foreign universities. For example, in the Faculty of Letters at the University of Bordeaux, the first Chair of Basque Language and Literature was established at the end of the 1940s, which the prestigious Basque language scholar, René Lafon, took on.

In addition to Bordeaux, Basque Studies programs were being established in Barcelona, Helsinki, Nevada, Pau, Toulouse, Salamanca, Tbilisi (Georgia), Tokyo, Prague… Interestingly, since the Basque Country lacked its own university, many of these universities, and particularly the Spanish and the French, were the ones which allowed more than one generation of Basque students to deepen their knowledge of their own language and culture. The Basque Country did not have its own government either to allow the design strategies needed for the promotion of their language and culture, so initiatives that were emerging did so, not so much because of good planning, but rather due to the momentum that big names in linguistics of the 20th century gave Basque Studies, like Lafon himself, Antonio Tovar, Koldo Mitxelena and Jacques Allières, just to name a few of the closest geographically.

A New Period, New Profiles

Beyond the interest still being stirred up by the Basque language and culture, the nature and dynamics of the current readership network has little to do with the one created during the 20th century. Its immediate predecessor, in both timing and format, is the one that, as mentioned, began in the heart of the Department of Culture of the Basque Government. By that time, in March of 2006, when this very Department announced that it was about to raise a Bill in the Basque Parliament promoting an organism which would lead to the creation of the Basque Etxepare Institute, there were already agreements with a dozen universities of Europe and America so that, through the language assistantships, courses of Basque language and culture would be incorporated into their academic offering.

That program was, in fact, one of the pillars on which the Basque Etxepare Institute, which took nearly a decade to materialize was structured upon and began operating in 2010. Since then, with reduced resources but large ambitions and a working capacity reflecting this, the network of readerships has been extended to 34. In recent years the pace has not decreased, and between 2014 and 2017 five new readerships have joined the network, the most recent at the University of Edinburgh. On the same foundation that Director Aizpea Goenaga and the first Director for the Promotion and Dissemination of the Basque Language, Mari José Olaziregi established in Etxepare’s initial years of operation, now with the renewed management team of Miren Arzalluz as Director for the Institute and Garbiñe Iztueta as Director for the Promotion and Dissemination of the Basque Language, the network is poised for continued growth.

Garbiñe Iztueta, Head of the Dissemination of the Basque Language. Etxepare

They certainly are not lacking for proposals to create new readerships at other universities, but the resources that the Etxepare Institute has to work with are not enough to continue establishing commitments of collaboration in unlimited ways. The Director for the Promotion and Dissemination of the Basque Language, Garbiñe Iztueta, talks about a possible enlargement of the network, conditioned by the resources available, but looking at especially interesting, prioritized areas “from a geographical and historical point of view,” such as Scandinavia and Canada.

Currently, four of the readerships underway are in Spain: 18 in nine European countries (notably Germany, with four); six in Latin America; five in the United States of America and one in Asia. The most recent, established at the University of Edinburgh, was launched this year. Among the most recently established, the one at the University of Havana stands out, led by Joseba Sarrionandia, one of the most respected writers in the Basque language and a leading figure in the landscape of Basque culture.

Sarrionandia, who holds the Prize for Fiction in the Basque Language in 1986 and 2001, and the Basque Country Prize for Literature in the Form of Essay in 2011, does not reflect however the most common profile among language assistants that typically takes the Basque language and culture to international universities. They are, in general, young people around the age of 30 who have completed their master’s or doctoral studies and who, as Iztueta highlights, “feel a calling to go out into the world.” Those who are selected in the public announcements that are made every four years are initially hired for that period of time, although “It’s not all that uncommon for them to ask for an extension, if both they and the University in which they are integrated are satisfied with the experience.”

Sometimes, the assistantship has become a stable occupation. In the majority of cases, however, it is a period of time that allows assistants to acquire that teaching experience that is so much valued when you start a college career, and which is not always easy to get at home. “It’s a unique opportunity,” says Garbiñe Iztueta.

Readership in Leipzig, Germany. Etxepare

On this common base, and on the principle of the academic rigor that has characterized the program since its inception, you can tell that there are as many readerships as universities, since “it’s imperative to adapt to the characteristics of the country and the University.” The variable affects both working conditions of assistants and the departments to which they belong. “Normally, they are integrated into language departments, Hispanic studies or Romance Language departments, but there are very different situations.” All these cases are detailed and formalize the agreements entered into between the Etxepare Institute and universities that choose to create a Readership of Basque Language and Culture.

Towards Greater Integration

The main objective, in any case, is always the same: “To offer the possibility to learn Basque abroad in an academic context, and make the Basque culture known.” Starting from there, the characteristics of the University, students and the person who takes charge of the assistantship make the difference. Generally, the more academic component of the program is completed with cultural and recreational activities that embody the social and cultural universe that revolves around the Basque language.

“These tasks of dynamization rely heavily on the people, but what is clear for all of them is that they are the face of the Basque Country and of the Basque people in the places where they are working,” indicates Garbiñe Iztueta, which also emphasizes the systematic follow-up which is done from the Basque Country as well as the importance given to the training of the assistants. They have a program of lifelong learning throughout the entire course (starting this year, also open to other profiles), as well as a specific course within the summer courses of the University of the Basque Country.

In the academic section strictly, the Basque language assistants are similar to those of other languages, with which they share space at almost all universities. The Basque language, however, is not only a language; it is also one of the main links of a dispersed community throughout the world featuring two hundred euskal etxeak or basque centers on all continents, mostly American, which also carry out a lot of work in the diffusion of the Basque language and culture. This 2017-2018 schoolyear, for example, there are more than 2,000 people studying Basque at these centers through the program Euskara munduan (The Basque language in the world).

Group at the Readership in Bologna, Italy. Etxepare

Both initiatives are independent branches, since Euskara munduan is preferentially directed to the general population of Basque origin, and the language assistants are University studies with students who have no previous links to the Basque Country. Still, the cases in which close collaboration between the Basque Centers and language assistants collaborate closely in the organization of activities that go beyond the strictly academic aspect are becoming more and more frequent. In the future, the relationship between both networks will be even closer.

On these two bases, and giving the limelight to the eight chairs which, at the initiative of the Etxepare Institute, have been settling in at many other prestigious American and European universities in promoting research on the Basque language and culture at the master and doctorate level, it can be said that currently the light being projected of Basque language and culture worldwide is brighter than ever.

About the Author

Nerea Azurmendi
Nerea Azurmendi is a journalist

Be the first to comment on "The Faces of the Basque Country in the World"

Leave a Reply