Q&A with Basque language activist Beñat Garaio Rising Voices


Photo courtesy of Beñat Garaio by Zaldi Ero

As part of our ongoing series highlighting the work of activists promoting European minority and regional languages ​​in digital spaces, we would like to feature Beñat Garaio (@BGaraio) who has worked to promote the Basque language by organizing initiatives and events, engaging with diaspora communities and participating in academic support activities. Beñat is based in the Spanish Basque Country.

Find out more about these initiatives in the following email interview by Rising Voices.

Rising Voices (RV): Tell us about yourself and your language-related work.

Benat Garaio (BG): My young but active career has focused on studying the revitalization and sociolinguistics of minority languages ​​and on organizing awareness-raising and dissemination activities in both fields. I have organized or co-organized initiatives such as Hitz Adina Mintzo, HIGA (Summit for Young Speakers of Minority Languages) and Euskarabentura and have been very active in publishing and sharing my academic work.

I was raised in Basque at home in my hometown (Gasteiz), but I did not use it with my friends or in my daily life until I moved to Idaho (USA), where a large Basque community is based and I was amazed at their efforts to preserve their language. Back home, I started participating in different initiatives until I moved to London to get the MA Language Support and Revitalization at SOAS University and pursue an academic career as well.

Since then, I have participated in many initiatives, but the networking between language communities around the world is what touches me the most.

RV: What is the current state of your language, online and offline?

BG: Basque is a fairly lively language in terms of speakers, resources and opportunities to learn and use it. However, it depends on the region because the Basque Country is divided into three regions (two in Spain and one in France) with different official recognition. Also, Basque speakers are a minority here and you might have large areas where Basque is barely spoken, while in others Basque is the main language.

Speaking online, Basque is one of the main languages ​​on some of the most important websites (eg Wikipedia, Twitter, etc.), but we have overwhelming content in Spanish, French and English, compared to Basque.

I also speak Catalan and we share certain challenges, even if Catalan is doing better in certain aspects (prestige, number of speakers, etc.).

RV: What are your motivations for seeing your language present in digital spaces?

BG: I do research with children from regions where Basque is the main language and even in their case, they are much more attracted to content created in the United States, Italy, Korea, Argentina. We live in both spheres of our lives, let’s call them physical spaces and digital spaces, but we value the latter more.

We, the minority languages, must be visible and attractive online if we want to have a chance of preserving our language, our identity and our culture.

Obviously, we can’t compete with the latest version in English, but we have to find a way to make our language attractive. I’m aware there’s more life outside of the internet, but we really need to act quickly on this: those kids I mentioned already speak English or South American Spanish with their classmates and their closest friends. That’s my motivation, to be honest, but also, I really like social media and watching digital content and I prefer to do it in my language.

RV: Describe some of the challenges that prevent your language from being fully used online.

BG: Everything is in English, Spanish and to a lesser extent in French and the younger generations, at least, understand these languages ​​without problems. Indeed, these languages ​​do not have as many stigmatizing labels as Basque might and learning, speaking and consuming content in these languages ​​is perceived as normal and/or fashionable.

A “small” linguistic community, such as Basque (700,000 speakers) is not big enough to convince big companies to produce a lot of content in the minority language and even if our cultural capital is high, we could say that it there are not enough consumers for the content. in basque. This can apply to music and literature, but also to films, series, social networks, etc.

We are very aware of this great challenge and I know that many groups are trying to reverse the situation; even large companies enter into an agreement with Basque institutions to create content in Basque. So we’ll see how it goes, but I can’t be and I’m not too pessimistic about the current situation.

KS: In your opinion, what concrete measures could be taken to encourage young people to start learning your language or to continue using it?

BG: First of all, the younger generations should have the opportunity to learn Basque from the age of 3 until the end of university, because this is not possible everywhere. Basque speakers must be able to use our language in any given situation and non-speakers must be able, at least, to understand the language and not force Basque speakers to switch to Spanish or French in these cases.

Basque should be seen as both more attractive and necessary to gain more prestige and institutions need to take more aggressive/courageous steps to enable this.

Regarding the digital space, we as Basque speakers need more content in Basque and must have more resources to create our own content in our own language.

The language proficiency of the younger generations is the highest in our history, we are quite a wealthy nation and attitudes towards our language are quite positive. It is therefore crucial to take advantage of this advantage if we want to revitalize our language.

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