Living History: What I’ve Learned from Bilbao’s Locals

Kate Klygis is a student at University of Denver and is an ISA Featured Blogger. She studied abroad with ISA in Bilbao, Spain.

How is it that 6-year-olds can understand one of the world’s oldest languages but their parents might not be able to? This language is called Basque, or Euskara natively; it is widely spoken throughout the Basque Country. Bilbao is located in the Basque Country, meaning that it is in both the Basque Autonomous Community of Spain, (Euskadi), and the greater, cultural region that stretches from Northwest Spain to Southeast France known as ‘Euskal Herria’. The origins of this ‘mysterious’ language are still unknown, but it is estimated that it is the oldest language on the European continent.  

I had a conversation with my host mom about the Basque language; she told me that in primary school, her grandkids learn Basque and English. I asked her which of those languages she thought her grandkids would use the most: “English: it can be used anywhere in the word”, she responded. But what about Basque? “They learn it because it’s an obligatory part of their education”.   

It has been said that the most important part of Basque culture is its language. The regulation of Basque in Spain began in the 20th century with the creation of the Royal Academy of the Basque Language, ‘Euskaltzaindia’ in Euskara, and the first ‘Ikastola’, a primary school taught exclusively in Euskara. But, between 1939 and 1975 in Spain, the Basque language underwent great suppression influenced by the Franco Regime. This explains the gap in basque-speakers (who refer to themselves as ‘Euskaldunak’). Even if they were born in Euskal Herria, it is still less common for adults and older people to know Basque because of its previous suppression. But, Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 brought political and social change which initiated ‘Euskara batua:’ a common form of Basque used in education, among other things, to unify the various dialects of Euskara throughout Euskal Herria. When the Basque Autonomous Community was formed in 1979, Spanish and Euskara became its co-official languages.

The Royal Academy of the Basque Language, ‘Euskaltzaindia’, located in Bilbao, which still serves today to protect and cultivate the Basque language.

Today, it’s beneficial for people who live in Bilbao to learn Euskara because most public sector jobs require a certain level of Euskara comprehension. Also, to learn Euskara is to maintain its culture. A recent campaign called “Euskaraldia” took place in all of Euskal Herria from November 23rd to December 3rd, 2018. During these 11 days, participants wore stickers corresponding to their comprehension of Euskara. By identifying people who understand and speak Euskara within Euskal Herria, the goal was to increase the amount of ‘Euskaldunak’ throughout the region by promoting its use in daily life.

An advertisement for the ‘Euskaraldia’ campaign at my University in Bilbao

Registration for Euskaraldia: those who will speak Basque between each other will be signified as ‘ahobizi’, and those who understand it and wish to be spoken to in Basque will be signified as ‘belarriprest’

So, what is my role as an American student studying in Euskal Herria? Through my current studies of Basque culture and language in Bilbao, I’ve learned that part of living out this culture is sharing it with others. Through the stories and songs I’ve heard from locals, the importance of the Basque culture is clear to me. Now, I have the privilege to share some of it with you!

Your Discovery. Our People… The World Awaits.

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