Why Basque is Spain’s version of Welsh

When I first received the email saying that I’d be spending my year abroad in Bilbao my heart sank, I hadn’t really put the sufficient amount of thought into where I’d wanted to study for the year abroad part of my degree because my original plan had always been to work for the British Council as a teaching assistant. I couldn’t comprehend why anyone would willingly commit to a year at a Spanish university, okay you have the social life but you actually have to study, which if you know me at all, you’ll know that I’m not the greatest fan of, how I’ve managed to get to my third year of university is a mystery.

Why study when you could earn money? (Yes I’m motivated by money, but it means that I can travel.) Then came the day that I was handed back a Spanish assignment, I realised that in fact I needed to go to a Spanish university in order to improve my writing in Spanish. You see, when you receive a comment saying: “don’t make up words, look in the dictionary,” you know something needs to be done. In short, I suck at writing.

So with one week until deadline day to give in which city I wanted to study in, I had little time to research where would be good for me. So I did what I had to and clicked onto Google images. Bilbao seemed nice, by the river, pretty beaches nearby and lots of interesting architecture. To hell with it, it’s not a massive city and it’ll be a change from the south of Spain which I know so well. My final choices came down to Bilbao, Alicante and Oviedo, all cities I knew next to nothing about. After I’d given in my choices it was then that I actually had a look at what these cities had to offer.

I received the confirmation that I’d be studying in Bilbao and immediately I doubted my decision. My doubts increased as my realisation that in Bilbao I might not be able to actually speak any Spanish, due to their pride in their own Basque language, and of course the involvement of the ETA terrorist group. Oh god, had I done something stupid? Committed myself to a year in the wrong city? Sure I knew about the Basque country and a little of their history, but it wasn’t until closer inspection that it began to sink in that perhaps I was ruining my chances of improving my Spanish. I had chosen a city with a different language and culture I knew little about.

At this point you’re probably thinking that you have to be pretty stupid to not research somewhere thoroughly before committing to staying there for an academic year. I know people who actually took flights to check out the places before making decisions, a luxury I neither had the time or money of doing. But the truth of the matter is that I’m just not that organised and can be persuaded that somewhere is nice by looking at some good photos. That’s how I make all my decisions of where I want to travel, that and what people tell me. So yes, call me stupid if you like, but that’s just how my thought process works.

Time passed and I lost interest in Spanish, I just wanted to finish my degree and was enjoying learning Portuguese more than Spanish, a language that I had always been so passionate about since I learnt my first few words – Hola, me llamo Victoria if you must know. Not the most interesting of first words, certainly not like in Dutch with my first sentences being, “waar is Luis? Hij is dood. Ik heb hem van de klif geduwd.” (Where’s Luis? He’s dead. I pushed him off the cliff,) but that’s a long story involving a horrid boss, a cliff and a very close Dutch friend of mine…a picture you can paint for yourselves. A lot of my friends were graduating and I had a further two years of study ahead of me, one of which might be pointless.

But then I arrived, I walked through the airport and was scared to see that all the signs were in Basque, followed by English, and then after that finally in Spanish, almost like an afterthought. Oh crap, what have I let myself in for? Basque is an ancient language, a language where the origin remains unknown, and doesn’t belong to any language families. Basically meaning that there is no way of guessing what any of it means. Even if you have a strong knowledge of Romance languages, Germanic languages or Latin which is believed to be the root of almost all, you’ll still have no hope.

At this point I’m getting more and more concerned, my heart it beating that little faster and my brain is working on overdrive thinking how this is going to work out. And then I stop to take a deep breath and can’t help but listen to everything around me. What I can hear is a language familiar to me, being spoken clearly, no strange accents but just Spanish, pure and clear Spanish. That rush that I used to get when I heard Spanish was back, there’s something about how the language flows that brings a smile to my face, thank goodness my concerns about Basque was beginning to be put at ease. Continuing my journey to my new flat, my home for the duration of my stay in Bilbao, I’m bombarded with signs in what can only be Basque, but with closer inspection Spanish underneath. I can see Basque all over the city but almost a week on and I’m still none the wiser on what it sounds like.

This leads me finally onto how Basque is Spain’s equivalent of Welsh. For anyone who’s been to Wales you’ll notice that they have invested a lot of time, money and effort on having everything in Welsh, you can’t help but notice all the Welsh writing, but do you hear Welsh spoken? If you head into the valleys then yes, maybe, but in the cities, have fun seeking that one out. As I remembered this everything clicked into place, the Basque Country is just like Wales, it’s mountainous and green, and it even rains a little. Even though there aren’t any sheep, don’t let that put you off, they have their own language which to me it seems that they’re proud of, although you may not hear it in the streets its presence is very clear through the written word. It’s something to be respected, even if not understood.

So you see if my suspicions are correct, to find Basque spoken in Bilbao might be difficult, I’d like to hear some so that I might be able to pronounce their signs with a little dignity, (brownie points if you know what a jatetxea is and how to pronounce it) but I think for now I’m safe in the knowledge that they speak good Spanish here, not like in Andalusia – that’s like learning English in Newcastle.

Bilbao may be in the Basque region, and they may have their own language, but at the moment I’ve not heard a single word, which makes my life easier, but at the same time means that Basque is a dying language, like so many languages of the world which makes me sad, because if we can’t be understood in our own language, in our own region, then where can we be understood? I think it was Nelson Mandela that once said something along the lines of that if “you speak to a man in English it will go to his head, but if you speak to a man in his own language it will go to his heart” something that I feel is so true.

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