The Basque Language Gains Speakers, but No Surge in Usage

The Sociolinguistic Survey, which has been reflecting the social evolution of the Basque language for three decades, reaffirms the changes of recent years and highlights the relevance of some trends.

by Nerea Azurmendi Zabaleta

Thirty years may seem like an insufficient amount of time to determine the future of a language like Basque, which is the treasure of many centuries of history, most of them with prevailing headwinds. However, three decades and the span of a generation have been enough for many other languages (more than 20 disappear every year), to be left without speakers and consequently, already become part of the list of dead languages.

In the case of Basque, the risk of imminent disappearance is overcome, but in the game of full normalization, the victory is not guaranteed. In some of its territories, stabilization cannot even be considered a win. Broadly speaking, the process of recovery and normalization of the social use of Basque is a success story. As such, it is recognized internationally, and this is reflected in one of the main tools to understand the evolution of the Basque language: the Sociolinguistic Survey of the Basque Country. The first survey was conducted in 1991, and the fieldwork of the 7th survey, which has been presented throughout the month of March, was carried out in the fall of 2021. Between them, thirty years have passed in which the scenarios of the Basque language have been changing, and everything indicates that they will continue to do so.

Representatives of the Basque Government presenting the results of the 7th Survey of the Basque Autonomous Community (Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa). Irekia

In general terms, in that time the Basque language has not only not disappeared but has gained tens of thousands of speakers, thanks, above all, to the extension of its knowledge among its youngest users. Basque has settled in places, both geographical and functional, in which half a century ago it was marginal, if not non-existent. However, the growth in the number of speakers has not guaranteed that the social use of the language will increase in the same proportion, and the quantitative and qualitative differences between the territories where Basque is used, a cross-border language that depends on three different governments, have not only not been reduced but, in some respects, seem to be accentuated.

Institutional Collaboration

The Sociolinguistic Survey is carried out almost simultaneously in all the territories that have Basque as their own language, although from an administrative point of view they are autonomous and independent: in Spain, the Basque Autonomous Community (BAC), with the provinces of Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa; and the Foral Community of Navarre (FCN); and in France, Iparralde (the Northern Basque Country), which is reaching a certain degree of institutionalization through the Commonwealth of the Northern Basque Country. In fact, the Survey is one of the projects which brought Hiruko Ituna to life, a collaboration agreement formalized in 2017 and extended to 2025, with the three administrations committing to work together to promote the Basque language, although the differences are quite considerable between the legal status of Basque in the three territories, as well as among the language policies applied by each of the three administrations.

Unlike other tools that help monitor the evolution of the Basque language, such as information from censuses, the Sociolinguistic Map (prepared every five years in the BAC and includes all those over 5 years of age) or the measurement of the use of languages in the public space, carried out by Soziolinguistika Klusterra, the Sociolinguistic Survey reflects the reality and opinion of citizens over 16 years of age. In this latest edition, 8,000 people (4,000 in the BAC, 2,000 in FCN, and 2,000 in the Northern Basque Country) selected according to gender, age and place of residence, have answered the 30 questions that comprise a questionnaire focusing on four large blocks: language ability, use of the Basque language in different areas, transmission, and opinion about policies to promote the use of Basque.

266,000 More Speakers

To date, the promoters of the Sociolinguistic Survey (the Vice-Ministry of Language Policy of the Basque Government (BAC), Euskarabidea, the Institute of the Basque Language of the Provincial Government of Navarre (FCN), and Euskararen Erakunde Publikoa (public office of the Basque language) of the Northern Basque Country, have not made a joint assessment of the results of the seventh edition. But in their respective partial presentations they have highlighted the importance of having precise and homogeneous data from a long enough period so that, thanks to the succession of five-year ‘still photos’, the developments that are characterizing and conditioning the evolution of knowledge and use of the Basque language are perceived.

Adding the numbers which at this point have been offered in a segregated manner by territory, we can observe the magnitude of the advance of Basque in terms of knowledge of the language. Data from the Sociolinguistic Survey show that between 1991 and 2021 Basque has gained more than 266,000 potential speakers. In 1991, 539,110 people over the age of 16 (430,000 in the BAC, 40,110 in FCN, and 69,000 in the Northern Basque Country) spoke Basque fluently. In 2021, there were 806,000 people in the Basque-speaking community (680,000 in the BAC, 76,000 in FCN, and 50,000 in the Northern Basque Country). As can be seen, the growth has not been homogeneous; it has not even been general, since in the Northern Basque Country, stopping the decline of the Basque language has not been possible since Basque is not even an official language in France.

The largest number of new speakers is accounted for from the BAC, the most highly populated territory of the three, with 2,152,400 inhabitants, 1,838,800 of whom are over 16 years old. At present, in the three provinces of this Community there are 261,000 more Basque speakers than in 1991. In percentage terms, the increase in the bilingual community in Basque and Spanish has been 12 points, from 24.1% of the population in 1991 to 36.2% currently. The majority still do not know Basque, since 45.3% are Spanish speakers, but the size and importance of the group made up of the so-called ‘passive Basque speakers’ or receivers, who do not speak Basque fluently but understand it, are increasing, to whom a growing importance is being attributed in the strategies of normalization of the use of the Basque language. In the BAC they already account for 18.6% of the population over 16 years of age. In 1991 they made up less than 9%.

Basque Book Fair in Sara (Lapurdi). In the Northern Basque Country, the situation of the Basque language continues to be worrisome. Euskal Kultur Erakundea

The increase in the number of Basque speakers has occurred in the three historical territories that make up this community and are more or less intense depending on the starting situation. In Gipuzkoa, where 51.8% of the population is Basque speaking, the increase has been two points in the last decade. It is followed by Bizkaia (30.6%, an increase of 5 points) and finally Araba (22.4%, up 6 points).

Variables such as gender do not have much impact (36.5% of women are Basque speakers, compared to 35.8% of men), but age is a determining factor in the linguistic competence of the population. Because of the effect that education and, to a lesser extent, the process of adults learning Basque has had on the revitalization of the language, young people are more than double the average of the BAC in terms of knowledge of Basque, since 74.5% of the age group between 16 and 24 years is Basque speaking. This is almost three times more than in 1991, when barely a quarter of this young group was Basque speaking. On the contrary, thirty years ago, the highest percentage of Basque speakers (33%) was in the older group. Now, the figure has been reversed and it is precisely the age group of those over 65, with the percentage of Basque speakers barely exceeding 22% as the least competent group in Basque.

Along with the speaker profile, geography of the Basque language has also changed in a very significant way, showing a trend, without a doubt, that has been intensifying in recent decades. The landscapes of Basque are not the same as thirty years ago, and currently more than half of the Basque speakers of the BAC (55.4%) live in large urban centers (Bilbao, Sestao, Barakaldo, Irun…) where Spanish predominates. The remaining 44.7% reside in sociolinguistic areas where the presence of Basque is much greater, although they do not contribute as many speakers because they are less populated. The 7th Sociolinguistic Survey confirms that the trends noticed in previous editions have been fully reaffirmed, and the Basque scenario in this Community is fundamentally young and urban.

Many of these traits are repeated in the Provincial Community of Navarre, where 14.1% of Navarrese aged 16 and over (546,000 people in a total population of just over 650,000) are Basque speaking. These 76,000 people represent a very considerable increase compared to the 40,000 (9.5% of the population at that time) who were recorded as Basque speakers in the 1991 Survey. If 10.5% of those who consider themselves passive Basque speakers are added to this 14.1%, it can be concluded that one in four residents in Navarre speaks or understands Basque.

Zoning problems in Navarre: The municipality of Mañeru requested its transfer from the non-Basque speaking zone to the mixed zone, but the government of Navarre has rejected the request. Diario de Noticias

As in the BAC, the highest percentages of knowledge of Basque correspond to young people, with 28% of Basque speakers and 12.2% of receiving or passive Basque speakers in this age group. The linguistic zoning legally in power in Navarre (Basque-speaking zone, non-Basque speaking zone and mixed zone), which not only reflects the unequal historical and social presence of Basque in the territory but tends to maintain it by establishing very different protection and promotion regimes depending on the areas, also has a clear reflection in the data provided by the Sociolinguistic Survey. Thus, in the Basque speaking area, made up of sixty not very populated municipalities in the valleys of the northwest of the Community, 62.3% of the population and 85.9% of the youth are Basque speaking. In the non-Basque speaking area, however, only 1.6% of the population is Basque speaking, the percentage of receiving or passive Basque speakers does not reach 8% and the majority of non-Basque speakers is overwhelming (90.9%). Spanish leads in the mixed zone (75.9%), where 12.6% of the population is Basque speaking, and 11.5% of the people understand and speak some Basque.

Although previous editions of the Sociolinguistic Survey provided some encouraging data, Basque continues to lose its weight in the French Basque Country. If in 1996 it was estimated that 26.4% of people over 16 years of age who at that time resided in the three provinces of Iparralde, Lapurdi, Baja Navarra and Zuberoa, spoke Basque, by 2021 that percentage had fallen to 20%, establishing the number of Basque speakers in the Northern Basque Country at 51,500. There has been a decrease in the number of speakers, but the decrease in their proportional weight has been even greater because of the increase in the population of a territory that approaches 320,000 inhabitants in recent years. In the last ten years, the proportion of Basque speakers has fallen by 1.3 points. As in the rest of the territories, the data improve as the age group decreases between 16 and 24 years. The percentage of Basque speakers has gone from 12.2% to 21.5% in twenty years.

No Upswing in Usage

For a linguistic community of just over 800,000 people, which, always in the case of those over 16 years of age, represents around 25% of the total population of the three administrative territories where Basque is used, the global quantitative advance of the last three decades is quite remarkable, but the growing number of speakers does not guarantee the vitality or full normalization of a language that competes day by day with Spanish and French, as well as English.

It is essential that the number of Basque speakers continues to increase in all territories, but what is vital is that the use of Basque also increases in all areas, from people’s homes to the working world, through leisure in all its variants, academia, administration, the media… The 7th Sociolinguistic Survey has once again confirmed the imbalance, hardly avoidable with the current circumstances in the opinion of experts, between knowledge of Basque and its use. In the BAC, where 36% of the population is Basque speaking, the percentage of those who use Basque as much or more than Spanish does not reach 22%. Between 1991 and 2021 knowledge has increased by 12 points and usage by just over 6. In line with the knowledge data, the youngest are the ones who use Basque the most in their daily lives.

In any case, those responsible for the language policy of the three territories agreed in their respective presentations when highlighting that the relationship between knowledge and use is mediated by multiple factors, such as the networks of relationships of each individual and the possibilities offered by both these networks and the rest of the environment to live in Basque; their ability to express themselves in that language, which usually tends to be less when bilingualism has not been reached from Basque, but having Spanish or French as their first language. The issue is not irrelevant for the future, since in all territories there is a growing weight of Basque speakers who do not have Basque as their mother tongue.

The mobilizations in the Northern Basque Country are constant to achieve advances in teaching in Basque. Demonstration in Bayonne in 2001. Bob Edme

In fact, the seventh edition of the Survey once again shows that where the use of the Basque language is increasing the most is in the most populated and a priori less Basque speaking areas. On the contrary, the most pronounced decline has occurred in areas with a Basque speaking majority, in towns and regions that are considered the ‘lungs’ of Basque. And this is not to be taken lightly since the decline is almost ten points. Experts attribute this to a sum of factors more social than linguistic: mobility; the progressive urbanization of the rural environment; the increase in the population of foreign origin, common to all territories and all sociolinguistic areas.

Regarding the Foral Community of Navarre, 12% of respondents say that they use Basque in their day to day, although that percentage is divided almost equally between those who use it as much or more than Spanish and those who, on the contrary, tend to use Spanish more. A similar number of citizens of the Northern Basque Country, 6%, say that they usually use Basque, but they are also the majority who put French ahead in the use of both languages.

Exception or Trend?

The Sociolinguistic Survey not only quantifies the knowledge and use of Basque, but also pays attention to two other dimensions closely related to the attitude of citizens towards languages: transmission within the family and personal position towards public initiatives to promote the Basque language. Both issues are closely related to the future of language, which requires both ties and personal commitments, and public policies decided and sustained over time.

Transmitting Basque to one’s offspring is obviously a test of adherence and personal commitment. In the BAC, when both parents are Basque speakers and their first language is Basque, 98% of the sons or daughters are only communicated to in Basque, and 2% Basque and Spanish. When only one parent is a Basque speaker and their first language is Basque, 84% use Basque and Spanish and 16% only Spanish. The percentages recorded in Navarre do not differ too much from the previous ones. The family language of 94.3% of the youngest respondents with both Basque parents was Basque, thus guaranteeing its transmission and improving the previous data. In the Northern Basque Country, however, things have not progressed in the same direction, and if in general terms when both parents are Basque speaking, two thirds transmit only Basque to their offspring, as age decreases the transmission rate also decreases.

There are also some changes (time will tell if they are exceptions or become trends) in the attitude of citizens towards public policies in favor of the Basque language. In the BAC, the majority has a positive attitude towards promoting the use of Basque: 67% are in favor, 26.3% have no opinion on the matter and 6.8% are against. These data mean that in the last thirty years, the percentage of people in favor of promoting the use of Basque has increased by 12 points.

The favorable attitude in the FCN has also increased, where 30% of the population welcomes the support of Basque from public institutions. This is 8.4 points more than in 1991, but 7.7 points less than 10 years ago. This shift is being especially pronounced among the youngest. In the 16-24 age group, support for promoting the use of Basque has fallen in ten years from 41.8% to 27.2%. In the population as a whole, contrary attitudes emerge, reaching 54.3% in the non-Basque speaking zone and 34.2% in the mixed zone, while in the Basque speaking zone only 5% are dissatisfied with public support for the Basque language.

In the Northern Basque Country indifference predominates since half of the population is neither for nor against. However, the percentage of those who oppose the promotion of the use of Basque is decreasing (it has gone from 21.3% to 14.5%) and, with education as the focus, everything related to the Basque language interests six out of ten citizens.

About the Author

Nerea Azurmendi
Nerea Azurmendi is a journalist

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