In this guest article, Professor Begoña Echeverria, a professor of education at the University of California, Riverside, describes how she uses songs to teach basic concepts of the Basque language to adults, focusing not on grammatical aspects, but rather conversation.
Eskerrik asko, Begoña!
Basque-ing in play: Using song to teach Basque in the American diaspora
Associate Professor and Associate Dean
Graduate School of Education
University of California
Riverside, CA 92521-0128
Efforts to revitalize Basque (Euskera) focus on showing its “equality” to dominant languages, emphasizing grammar and “correctness” in the classroom. But while the number of Basque speakers has risen in the last few decades, Euskera is still endangered. Basque speakers will switch to another language (usually Spanish or French, but English in the diaspora) when only one non-Basque speaker is among them and speakers do not speak the Euskera they know: by 2001, one-quarter of the population in the Basque Autonomous Community spoke Basque, but only 14% used in publicly (Urla, 2013: 133). Standardization has increased native speakers’ insecurities so that “’the creative capacity of the Basque speaker is being lost, the capacity to play with and enjoy the language. And when that is lost, the language itself is on the way to being lost’” (Urla, 2013: 108, quoting Zuazo 2000: 132).
I took these lessons to heart when I taught a Basque class to adults between 2006-2010 for a Basque club in southern California. The class was part of a larger effort through the North American Basque Organization, composed of Basque clubs in the United States and Canada, to promote the language (www.nabasque.us). I was asked to take over the class by one of its students when the first volunteer teacher was unable to continue. I agreed to take on the class so long as it focused on conversational skills—and not grammatical “correctness”—in part, because I am not a trained foreign language teacher, but also because the research I have done in the Basque Country itself suggested that focusing on teaching “correct” Basque was problematic to the extent that it made many Basque learners (and sometimes native speakers) too self-conscious to actually speak Basque outside the classroom (Echeverria 2003).
In this sense, my work corroborates that of scholars in other minority language communities. That is, while attempts to revitalize languages often focus on standardizing and modernizing their languages so that they become more instrumentally useful and more able to challenge dominant language hegemony, such strategies do not guarantee that the prestige and use of that language will increase. Eckert (1983) demonstrates that minority language standardization can just as easily alienate native speakers as empower them; Wong (1999) shows that native speakers might reject the standard imposed on them altogether. Gal (1979) and Milroy (1987) suggest that, because of the association often found between vernaculars and solidarity, some speakers will continue to speak vernaculars even if they are not instrumentally advantageous.
But another reason for my insistence on the class focusing on informal conversation rather formal grammatical rules or conventions was that I knew that in order for the experience to be worthwhile for me—it was on a volunteer basis, after all—it had to be fun. And that meant using songs and games as much as possible to teach the language. In this paper, I focus on the songs I used and wrote to convey some of the basic vocabulary needed for conversation in Basque, and to illustrate some the features of the language that most challenged my English-speaking students.