Ever since I planned on going to the North of Spain, to the Basque Country, aka Euskal Herria, I was on the lookout for where I could learn more of the local language, Euskara.
Euskara is a language unique to the North of Spain and Southwest of France, unrelated to any other language (though many theories exist regarding its unlikely relationship to other languages). For more information about the language itself, I would direct you to its Wikipedia page. I will focus here on my own experiences with the language.
When I went to the North of Spain in July, I had the opportunity to sit in on a class of Basque for adults at the Lauaxeta Euskaltegia in Getxo, Spain. This school offers classes to locals who want to become better at this language. They offer various levels of courses, and I sat in on the basic class.
This school belongs to a federation of schools called AEK or “Coordinator to Promote Basque Language and Literacy.” (The link is to a Spanish article. The Euskara article is here.) These institutions promote knowledge of and literacy in Euskara.
The Basque state makes these institutions essential because those working in Euskal Herria require knowledge of Euskara, evaluated by official exams. The State made proficiency in this language a legal requirement for most jobs.
I was able to sit in on the last couple hours of one of the intensive classes. These meet five days per week over the course of a month for four to five hours per day, and are aimed at those who want to pass the official Euskara exam.
I found out that the class aimed at helping locals improve their chances of career success. The class taught about the intricacies of Euskara grammar, and the ability to create and understand sentences that use these structures.
The teacher accepted me in quickly, and treated me no differently from the other students. He introduced himself to me in Euskara, then asked me a few questions. Once he saw my blank face, he translated them to me in Spanish, and then he and the other students whispered the answers to me in Euskara. I proudly smiled and pronounced my Euskara responses.
The students were comprised of four men and six women. Their age ranged from about late 20s to early 50s, though there was one gentleman probably a bit older.
We all stated—in Euskara, of course—where we come from. I was surprised to find out that several of them actually came from Euskal Herria. I would have figured they would have learned some growing up in school and would have no need for a basic class.
The next part of the class we went over creating complex clauses with “although.” I’m sure we were supposed to be working on some verb mood, but that part was over my head. I was able to create one sentence on my own:
Getxon naizen arren ez dut euskara.
That is, “I’m in Getxo, although I don’t speak Euskara.”
For the other questions, my accommodating teacher and classmates whispered the answers into my ear.
One exercise that captured my imagination covered one of the most difficult aspects of Euskara, that is subject-object-verb agreement. Those of you who know European languages are familiar with subject-verb agreement. In French we say, Je chante “I sing,” but Vous chantez “You sing.” Note the difference in verb endings, chante vs chantez. In English we have a vestige of this with “I sing” vs “He sings.”
Euskara, however, agrees not just with the subject but also with the object. So the verb would take a different form between “I see you” and “I see him.”
The exercise was a game like dominoes. (I love getting up and moving when I’m learning, so the exercise grabbed my attention.) All the students stood around a table, “dominoes” in hand. On one end of the “domino” was a combination of pronouns, say, “I-you.” The other end had the verb suffix for a different combination of persons. As soon as I saw the “I-you” verb suffix on the table, I joined my “I-you” pronoun card to the domino track.
During one part of the class, we switched to Spanish. The students were anxious about the exam and wanted to discuss it. The teacher spent some time in Euskara and Spanish to explain the different levels, the time frame for sitting the exams, and the subjects they would cover.
Economic livelihood lay at the back of their mind. I enjoy learning languages. I do so in my spare time. Plus I know English—all I need for decent job in most places. But I don’t have to to get a good job, or to keep the one I have.
So while this is a language class, it was also a job training class. The goal is to pass an exam. I’m not sure how much they will be speaking the language outside of class.
One woman, though, was pregnant. I didn’t get a chance to talk to her, but I wonder how much her decision to take this class was not just for her but also for her child. Euskara for the next generation!