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Sociolingüística internacional
Winter 2002

Sociolinguistic studies carried out by the Deputy Ministry for Language Policy of the Basque Government, by Miren Mateo and Xabier Aizpurua

The sociolinguistic studies promoted during the last 10 years by the Vice-Ministry of Language Policy of the Basque Government clearly show its will of implementing and monitoring on a regular basis the positive actions carried out in favour of the Basque language (euskara).
For this purpose, the sociolinguistic surveys of Euskal Herria (Basque Country), carried out every five years since 1991, are, along with the censuses, the basic tools to obtain final indicators to assess the efficacity of the language policies implemented to promote the use of euskara. On the one hand, these surveys allow to compare and to complete the information provided by the population censuses that since 1981 offer data about mother tongue, knowledge and use of Basque and, on the other one, they also allow to obtain the basic information needed in those Basque-speaking territories (i.e. French Basque Country) for which we lack of censal data.
This papers gives a brief overview of the evaluation indicators of the language policy, the sociolinguistic evolution and its main results in the Basque Autonomous Community (BAC).

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1. Introduction

2. Indicators on sociolinguistic situation

3. Principal results

4. Final conclusions

5. Sociolinguistic studies carried out by the Deputy Ministry for Language Policy

1. Introduction

According to Joseba Intxausti, (1) ‘The statistics provided by Velasco (a native of Alava) are the most reliable data we have regarding the number of Basque speakers during the last century.’ It is worth noting the very high percentage of Basque speakers in almost all the territories comprised within the Basque Country (pdf 49KB): (2) Gipuzkoa (1867) 96%; Bizkaia (1867) 81%; Northern Basque Country (1866) 65%; Navarra (1867-68) 20% and Álava (1867) 10%.

What becomes most obvious when we examine this data is the uninterrupted decline of the Basque language over the last century. Multiple factors (which we will not attempt to analyse here) have all contributed to generating a language shift of such proportions that today:

  • there are almost no monolingual Basque speakers;

  • the number of Basque speakers has been reduced to less than a third of its former level; and

  • native Basque speakers are now a minority group in all the territories of the Basque Country.

More than twenty years have passed since the Statute of Autonomy (BAC 1979) proclaimed Basque the official language of the Basque Autonomous Community and the various government institutions. One of the basic measures taken within the BAC shortly afterwards was the enactment of Act 10/1982 on the Normalisation of Basque Language Use, which after recognising the language rights of all citizens, laid down the authorities’ obligations with regard to achieving full normalisation of Basque language use. As a result, reversing the language shift became the central focus of language policy over subsequent years.

According to Joshua Fishman, (3) reversing the language shift does not only imply the fostering of early language acquisition, fluency in the different varieties of a first or second language and everyday use within the school environment, but also involves promoting the growing social use and intergenerational transmission of a language that is still not the mother tongue of the majority of the population, the aim being to enable each successive generation to start out with a slightly greater advantage than the one before.

2. Indicators on sociolinguistic evolution

In light of the above, over ten years ago the Basque Government’s Deputy Ministry for Language Policy decided to establish a simple, reliable, homogenous, ongoing and insightful system of indicators throughout the Basque Country, in an attempt to assess the aspects listed below in two ways: simultaneously (in diverse territories and social groups) and longitudinally (in the same territory or social group):

  1. The intergenerational transmission of the Basque language, in particular family transmission or early language acquisition at school.

  2. Inhabitants’ language mobility (Basque language retention, loss or incorporation rates), according to first language.

  3. The use and growing social functionality of the Basque language:

  • based on the differences in use between family, social and institutional functions, above all among young new Basque speakers (4) or people who have learned Basque as a second language;

  • paying special attention to identifying the socio-structural and psycholinguistic factors that exert the strongest influence: density of Basque speakers in the closest relational networks (family, friends, work, etc.) and speakers’ relative fluency in Basque (either as a first or second language) in comparison with Spanish or French.

The system also strives to reflect the diverse dimensions that contribute to a person’s social identity, namely sociodemographic factors (gender and age); socio-professional level (academic qualifications, profession, employment situation); geographical factors (the three political-administrative communities of the Basque Country; legally established language zones, diverse sociolinguistic zones, provinces, regions and municipalities; and, in municipalities with a population of over 10,000, neighbourhoods or districts); language identity; origin and cultural identity, among others. To do so, we rely on two basic information sources:

  • The censuses and municipal registers of inhabitants in the BAC that are carried out/compiled once every five years and which since 1981, have included questions regarding the level of Basque language skill (comprehension and oral and written expression), the first language acquired up until the age of three and the primary language used at home. (5) On the basis of the information gathered by this means, we have compiled a series of more or less synthetic categories (language level (pdf 11KB); language mobility (pdf 11KB) including retention, loss or incorporation of the Basque language; and use in the home (pdf 11KB) in accordance with language mobility).

  • Sociolinguistic surveys carried out in 1991, 1996 and 2001 (6) encompassing the entire Basque Country. With a sample of over 6,300 individuals, these surveys complement the information gathered from the censuses, although they are not representative of the lower provincial levels.

Currently, the Deputy Ministry for Language Policy’s Co-ordination Department is in the process of implementing a project designed to establish a national system of language policy and sociolinguistic evolution indicators in order to enable an ongoing assessment of these factors and to provide relevant information to both the authorities and the bodies and organisations (citizens in general, families, language normalisation groups, professionals, entities and associations) involved in the Basque language normalisation process.

The establishment of a national system of language policy indicators is a project that has featured in many of the action plans developed by the Deputy Ministry for Language Policy. It is a stable, ongoing objective involving the following activities:

  1. Definition of indicators;

  2. Construction or calculation of previously defined indicators;

  3. Continuous improvement of the indicator system.

The project’s main aim is to define and construct a system of indicators capable of providing information regarding the language policy situation throughout the Basque Country. The system must be compatible with current international models (such as those established in Catalonia and Quebec, etc.) and must be suitable for application in the various areas of the public sector. The indicators should refer to the contextual factors of language policy, as well as to such areas as costs, functioning and results. The project, therefore, has no established time limit, but is rather an ongoing initiative subject to periodic reviews and updates.

In order to establish effective indicators, reliable and periodic data sources are required. To this end, we need to forge even closer links with the Basque Statistics Institute (EUSTAT) as well as the other government departments and institutions in order to enable closer co-ordination between the said project and other assessment studies that constitute the natural data sources for some indicators, especially those referring to the processes and results of specific sectoral action plans.

The action plans set in motion by the Deputy Ministry for Language Policy during the 1995-1998 and 1999-2002 periods already recognised the need for a systematic assessment of language policy and anticipated the need to establish a national system of indicators.

As a result, in 1996 the make up of the Basque Language Advisory Board was altered to include a number of organisations and representatives from social initiatives, in addition to the BAC government authorities working in the field of language policy (government, provincial governments and municipal associations). The Basque Language Advisory Award set up a number of working groups to carry out specific tasks within the framework of the overall project:

  1. assessment of the strong and weak points of the sectorial plans of action implemented over recent decades; and

  2. analysis of the budgets earmarked for promoting Basque language use.

The results of this assessment formed the basis of the General Plan for Promoting Basque Use, which was approved by the Basque Government on 28 July 1998 and ratified by the Basque Parliament on 10 December 1999.

Today, we are still working on the establishment of a national system of indicators. The primary obstacle hampering the construction of such a system is the need for internal coherence and the establishment of relations between indicators, which in turn requires the adoption of a theoretical reference model. International experiences however, have demonstrated the practical impossibility of establishing such a model. (7) It is therefore preferable to establish an operational reference framework that will enable us to distribute the indicators coherently and relate them to each other.

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