Logotip de la revista Noves SL





Sociolingüística internacional

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


This functional reference framework may comprise the following five sections, which in turn would cover a multitude of different indicators: (8)

  1. Context (total and year-by-year population; GDP per inhabitant; relationship between population and economic activity; immigrant population and age; etc.);

  2. Resources (public spending on promoting Basque language use; proportion of the working population employed in the field of language normalisation (teachers, language technicians, translators, interpreters, journalists, etc.));

  3. Legislative development and sectorial plans of action (percentage of students in the Basque education system according to language model (A, B, D, X) and educational phase, in both the public and private sectors; presence of Basque songs in media broadcasts; and dissemination (in terms of the number of copies published) of local and regional newspapers (free), indicating the percentage of articles written in Basque; etc.);

  4. Processes (number of administrative entities, educational centres or companies with Basque language plans; etc.);

  5. Results (intergenerational Basque language transmission, including the family environment, according to age; Basque language use in formal and informal environments; etc.).

It is difficult to determine the exact number of indicators that should be included in the system. It is therefore very important to establish effective criteria for their selection, (9) namely:

  • Relevance and significance: indicators should provide significant information about relevant areas of language policy.

  • Immediacy: indicators should give a quick, global overview of the sociolinguistic and language policy situation, offering a synthetic vision of the most characteristic traits.

  • Technical soundness: i.e. validity and reliability.

  • Feasibility: indicators should be relatively easy to obtain and calculate, both in terms of the information required and their cost.

  • Durability: long-term stability of the indicators used, in order to enable longitudinal studies of the sociolinguistic and language policy situation.

  • Selection agreed by consensus: the indicator selection process is always difficult, given that it requires a consensus between different perspectives that do not necessarily coincide or have the same set of priorities. It is therefore vital that the said process be carried out on the basis of general consensus.

3. Principal results

Having said this, we will now proceed to outline the principal conclusions drawn from the sociolinguistic studies carried out by the Deputy Ministry for Language Policy. These studies show an extremely complex and changing situation characterised by:

  • Significant changes in the structure of our population, as a result of: a) a drastic decrease in population resulting from an abrupt drop in birthrate (especially among the youngest members of society), causing a simultaneous increase in the average age of the population; and b) the gradual influx of immigrants which looks set to increase even more over the coming years.

  • Significant qualitative changes in the Basque speaking population, as a result of the gradual reduction in native Basque speakers as a direct consequence of the massive increase in young bilingual citizens for whom Basque is their second language (among the youngest sectors of the population, those who have learnt Basque as a second language now outnumber native Basque speakers). Both groups are qualitatively very different, both from the perspective of their fluency and their relative ability to express themselves in Basque or Spanish, and from the point of view of the density of Basque speakers in their network of family, social (and work) relations, a factor which has an enormous influence on their respective language uses.

It is precisely these deep-rooted transformations (both occurring simultaneously) that prevent the enormous increase in bilingual speakers and the slight increase in Basque use according to age from being more noticeable in our society. In any case, the following is a list of traits (which we will explore in greater detail later on) that characterise the sociolinguistic evolution of our country:

- The majority of the population is in favour of positive action aimed at promoting Basque, a minority and lesser-used language.

- The progress made with regard to the intergenerational transmission of the Basque language has been spectacular, thanks to the incorporation of thousands of new speakers as a result of the Basquisation of the Basque education system.

- Basque family transmission is almost 100 percent. Despite this, however the percentage of people for whom Basque is their sole first language has remained more or less the same in terms of the total population, although it has increased slightly if we take into account those for whom both Basque and Spanish are their first languages (simultaneously).

- Basque language use (especially in more formal environments, but also in informal situations) is on the increase, although ten years later and to a much lesser extent than the increase in language ability. Despite this, speakers who usually express themselves in Basque are in the minority in all age groups (almost never exceeding 25 percent), although there are notable differences between the different groups: among the older members of population, i.e. those born before 1937, hardly any differences were found between those who express themselves in Basque, those who know how to speak the language correctly and those for whom Basque is their first language, either solely or in conjunction with Spanish; among the younger members of the population however, i.e. those born after 1977, the number of habitual Basque speakers was slightly higher (this is the only age group in which Basque language use was recorded as being slightly over the 25 percent mark), although, and this may seem somewhat paradoxical, the number of habitual users is double that of those for whom Basque is their first language and accounts for just over half of those who know how to speak the language correctly.

As we said earlier, the progress made in the area of intergenerational transmission has been spectacular: while in 1981 the number of monolingual Spanish speakers was double or even triple that of Basque speakers (or bilingual speakers) in all age groups, 15 years later, the number of bilingual speakers under the age of 25 was far higher (even double) than the number of monolingual Spanish speakers in the same age group. However, as mentioned above, the abrupt drop in birthrate has prevented this increase in bilingual speakers from being reflected in figures pertaining to the total population.

Nevertheless, since the increase in bilingual speakers is mainly due to the Basquisation of the education system, only a third of bilingual speakers speak with greater fluency, ability and ease in Basque than in Spanish. In this sense, the percentage of new Basque speakers (i.e. those for whom Basque is not their native language) among the bilingual population is increasing and this important qualitative change has a direct influence on Basque language use, given that the target conditions required for speakers to express themselves habitually in Basque are, in this case, significantly less favourable. It is therefore necessary to set in motion specific programmes designed to provide these young bilingual speakers with an opportunity to improve the language skills acquired at school, thereby preventing their loss upon leaving the educational system. In this sense it is important to establish additional social reinforcers, at both an emotional level (love, approval and consideration of family, peers and other significant figures from all generations and levels of intimacy) and an instrumental or practical level (prizes, positions and occupations and other tangible proofs of success and achievement that are appropriately valued by society), in order to enable these skills and abilities to take root and become self-sustaining and contextually independent.

From the perspective of language mobility, it is worth mentioning that in the BAC Basque language gains have been significantly higher than losses (which have dropped drastically); in Navarra, gains have been slightly higher than losses; and, by contrast, in the Northern Basque Country, losses have far outnumbered gains. This is a faithful reflection of the language policies implemented in each of the three territories (pdf 40KB) over recent years.

On the other hand, the majority of bilingual speakers in the BAC express themselves principally in Basque, or in Basque and Spanish, not only in the family context but also in their immediate community (friends, work colleagues, priest) and even in more formal contexts (bank, town hall), with the exception of the health service. Basque use has increased significantly over recent years (10) in all areas of use analysed. However, the number of speakers who express themselves habitually in Basque, which has, in absolute figures, increased over recent years, has decreased in percentage terms with respect to the entire group of Basque speakers. This number has, however, increased with respect to the total population, which is a direct consequence of the enormous increase in bilingual speakers in our society for whom Basque is not their first language.

In short, the profile of Basque speakers is undergoing such a radical transformation that the traditional identity traits (Basque speakers as those for whom Basque is their first language, those who know how to speak the language correctly and those who use it habitually at home and/or with their friends) are becoming increasingly difficult to recognise (the number of Basque speakers for whom Basque is their first language is decreasing and the number of those who use Basque as a habitual form of expressing themselves is increasing). Are we not then on the threshold of a change in the prevailing social structure that has, until now, guaranteed among Basque speakers the predominant use of Basque in areas such as the family and among friends? Is this the end of the situation of diglossia that has enabled the survival of the Basque language for so many years?

As regards the factors that influence use, the analyses carried out on the basis of both the sociolinguistic surveys (pdf 54KB) and censuses (pdf 163 KB), clearly show that the density of Basque speakers in the individual’s relational network and his/her relative language skill in the first and second language are the most significant factors:

  • In order to guarantee a predominant use of Basque in the home, the density of Basque speakers in that environment must be above 80%.

  • In the home, use by those for whom Basque is their first language is ten times greater than by bilingual speakers and more than 20 times greater than by new Basque speakers.

Synthetic maps of BAC municipalities with populations of over 10,000 (divided into neighbourhoods or districts) clearly show the progress made by the Basque language from the point of view of the increase in the density of Basque speakers in social relational networks. However they also show that, today, this increase in density is insufficient and does not reach the threshold required to guarantee a more generalised social use (Gasteiz (pdf 57KB); Bilbao (PDF 100KB; Donostia (pdf 72KB).

To conclude, we shall now offer an overall view of the intergenerational transmission of the Basque language, paying specific attention to the contribution made by family transmission.

2 de 3