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18/04/2010 - 19:17

Basque language policy in the northern Basque Country-Development of the Public Office for the Basque Language


The Public Office for the Basque Language (POBL) recently presented its plan of action and objectives for 2010-2016. While provisional, it is interesting to analyse these objectives and, with a view to evaluating the development of the linguistic policy, measure their progress during the first phase running from 2004 to 2009.

This is exactly what we will try to do, if briefly, in the following lines.

2004-2009: structure and policy developed

The Public Office for the Basque Language has come a long way since its creation in December 2004 and since definition and approval in 2006 of the Linguistic Policy Project. Don't forget that the public linguistic policy started almost from scratch.

Work has been carried out in several areas since then. Here we can refer to the study of the situation, drafted in French: État des lieux provisoire de l'action menée par l'Office Public de la Langue Basque 2005-2009, September 2009. Worthy of note among the areas in question is teaching of the Basque language in schools, given the rapid growth of the number of pupils studying the bilingual model with parity and the immersion model, principally in Primary Education.

Steps have been taken to verify linguistic skills during school education but also their level outside of school. Thus, for example, in 2009 the POBL signed an agreement with the Université de Pau et des Pays de l'Adour and the Université Michel de Montagne Bordeaux with the purpose of creating a title equivalent to the EGA, Basque language qualification.

The POBL has created a network of Basque technicians in a number of municipalities and cities, which will pay half of the salaries. This network currently consists of seven technicians: five in the different municipalities, one in Bayonne and another in Biarritz.

From 2005 until 2010 the office grew in size, both with respect to staff, with nine employees, and to financial resources. The budget has increased and in 2010 will hit the €3,056,000 mark, €520,000 more than the previous year. This figure includes the €470,000 granted by the Basque Government through the Vice-ministry of Language Policy.

But I believe that the most important aspect is the following: the Public Office for the Basque Language has become a meeting point for the public institutions and the principle associations responsible for fostering Basque language. We mustn't forget that until, at least, the nineties, and until the Special Agreement for the Basque Country was introduced in 2001, the administration, generally speaking, either didn't help or only very slightly helped associations working in favour of Basque language, often with no criterion on linguistic policy.

In this new public linguistic policy, the principal associations (Euskaltzaindia, the Royal Academy of the Basque Language, Seaska, the Ikas pedagogical centre, Uda Leku, the Euskal Irratiak [Basque radios], etc.) have become the advocates of this new policy, while their activities have entered the linguistic policy plan through collaboration agreements.

On the other hand, public bodies, national education and provincial groups, at least, are working on this new public policy, funding its structure and projects while carrying out institutional collaborations within the POBL framework.

The "Linguistic Policy Project": the aim of total speakers

But this policy, like all policies, has its limits and shortcomings. And in my opinion, one of the most important is the notion of the full speaker.

In its Linguistic Policy Project for 2006, the Public Office for the Basque Language states that «the aim is to increase the number of total speakers» and that «the strategy is to place stakes on the new generations». We've already said it right here, this was an overly vague, overly general objective for the project.

General, because these questions have no answers: How many full speakers? In what percentage? In what amount of time?

Not only that, but the notion of full speaker is more of an ideal than a reality in the case of the northern Basque Country given the situation of the Basque language as it stands today. But, more than just an idea, it could be an objective, a long-term objective. To be a full speaker would mean the existence of Basque language in all areas of public and private life. To achieve this, Basque language would have to win over, or at least share, the areas of use and the functions where French now predominates. It is at this stage, when this has been achieved, just as Basque language would adapt to all areas, those who speak Basque would become full speakers.

Objective for 2010-2016: to foster the use of Basque language

In December 2009, the POBL Board of Directors passed a provisional road map, open to precision and modification, for the years 2010-2016: Cadre opérationnel provisoire 2010-2016 pour la politique publique linguistique.

This text analyses the experience of the POBL in its the first years of action. On top of specifying the extent to which the actions undertaken were accomplished, it analyses the experience gained from this first stage, 2005-2009. This was a strategic, not to say theoretical reflection. And this is the core idea: besides acting in the transmission, the knowledge gained in the first phase will have to boost the use of language. In the words of the Chairman of the POBL (Berria, 2009/12/17), «we haven't placed enough importance on usage and linguistic policy has been left with a limp».

This progress in the area of reflection is enormously important, because it takes account of the evidence that the vitality of a language is firstly measured according to the use made of it, but also that knowing a language doesn't necessary influence its use. It also shows that although, in my opinion, the theoretical bases of the Linguistic Policy Project are weak and lacking in development, they can change, they can be improved.

Future reflections must focus on conditions facilitating use of the language and an analysis must therefore be made of potential areas of use and functions of Basque language in the northern Basque Country.

Jean-Baptiste Battittu Coyos