Interview with Miren Azkarate, visiting researcher at CIRM and Elbira-Zipitria Chair in the Basque Country

Published: 13 September 2023

Miren Azkarate dans une bibliothèque

CIRM is pleased to welcome Miren Azkarate as visiting scholar, from September 21 to October 4, 2023. Miren Azkarate is invited as part of the Etxepare Euskal Institutua Elbira-Zipitria Chair in Basque Studies, the result of an agreement between CRIEM, Etxepare Euskal Institutua and McGill University. Like Québec, Euskal Herria (the Basque country) is distinguished by its language, culture and history; the Chair proposes to parallel Quebec and Basque perspectives on language teaching, development and use, in particular.

Ms. Azkarate has been an honorary collaborator of the University of the Basque Country since January 2023, after a career as a professor of philology at the same university. Ms. Azkarate is a specialist in issues relating to language planning, use and teaching of minority languages. She has focused on the case of Basque and the strategies, actions and projects needed to promote the use of Basque in schools, public institutions and among new arrivals in urban areas. She was also Minister of Culture in the Basque government from 2001 to 2009.

To find out more about her stay, CIRM contacted Miren Azkarate by e-mail and asked her a few questions.


What brings you to CRIEM-CIRM?

The Elbira Zipitria chair brings me to CRIEM-CIRM. This chair, inaugurated last September, was created within the framework of the group of chairs promoted by the Etxepare Institute, which, among other activities, supports research on Euskara and Basque culture through Basque studies chairs created at leading universities around the world. The Elbira Zipitria chair is the last of them, created, as I said, last year at McGill University. Named after the Basque educator, pioneer and promoter of teaching in Basque, innovative schoolteacher and creator of the Basque language ‘ikastola’ system, the chair will focus on Basque culture and cultural innovation. In fact, the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Engineering at McGill University have been working with the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montréal (CIRM) since 2022 to promote the Basque language in education and society, placing innovative cultural movements at the centre. I have the privilege of being the first visiting professor of the chair.

You study the language policy carried out in the Basque Country; how does it compare to the linguistic situation in Québec and in Montréal? For instance, do you have an example where the issues are similar and one where they are different?

I would say that societies in which there is a minority language always share similar challenges. They need a clear commitment from society to recover the language and a clear commitment from political leaders to enact laws and decrees to make effective (carry out) what Fishman called the Reversing Language Shift.

This is the first major similarity between Québec and the Basque Country. We both started from a situation where French and Basque are minorities and we are implementing policies to enable citizens to use their respective languages in all areas of daily life. And, thanks to these policies, we have both seen the situation of French and Basque change; in both cases, Education has played and continues to play a central role.

But there is no doubt that there are also major differences between Québec and the Basque Country. First of all, Basque is a pre-Indo-European language, with no known relatives among the languages of the world. It is an ergative, agglutinative language, with a complex verbal morphology, which means that there is a great linguistic distance between Spanish or French and Basque.

On the other hand, the Charte de la langue française establishes that French is the official language of Québec, while in the Basque Country we have two official languages: Spanish and Basque.

In Québec, French is the mother tongue of 79.6% of the population and according to Leimgruber (2019) "bilingualism is becoming more and more of a defining feature of anglophone Quebecers." In our country, only 36% of the population is bilingual and Spanish is the mother tongue of 75% of the population.

I could go on detailing the differences, but I believe that the data I have given are sufficient to show the major differences between Québec and the Basque Country.

What are the current issues regarding the language activist groups in the Basque Country?

Many of us think that the Basque language is in a croos road. It needs to make decisive progress in schools, in the world of work and in informal use. Language activist groups, well organized nowadays and collaborating side by side with public institutions in the promotion of the Basque language, share this diagnosis and these concerns.

Among the language activist groups I would like to highlight on the one hand, the Euskalgintzaren Kontseilua (Council of language activists) brings together the main organisations and social entities working in favour of the normalisation of the Basque language. It is made up of more than 30 associations which, by taking advantage of their combined strength, aim to influence language policies in order to speed up the process to normalise Basque. On the other hand, Euskaltzaleen Topagunea (Meeting point for bascophiles), a social movement committed to building a community that wants to live in Basque, which is formed by a group of associations, citizens and workers committed to the Basque language and the euskaldun (Basque-speaking) community.

Recently, in the framework of a conference organized by the Viceconsejería de Política Lingüística (the Vice-Ministry of Language Policy), two very important documents were presented. Respectively, Change by adding up. Social consensus to influence language policies, and Jump all at once. Theory of Change to make a leap in the use of Basque. Both document have striking similarities and coincidences and are perfectly aligned with the analysis of "Weaknesses, Threats, Strengths and Opportunities of the Basque language today", carried out by the Vice-Ministry of Language Policy.

How do you think CRIEM-CIRM will help you in your research?

Québec has always been a reference for us. Our Basque Standardization Act (1982) is clearly inspired by the Charte de la langue française de Québec. I would say that the rights of citizens and the obligations of the public authorities in relation to the Basque language included in the Law for the normalization of the use of the Basque language (1982) are based on the Fundamental language rights set forth in the Charte de la langue française.

Moreover, in the 1980s and 1990s we had a constant relationship with Quebecois sociolinguists such as William Mackey or Richard Bourhis who were indispensable advisors for both Basques and Catalans. Professor Bourhis remembers very well how he participated in the elaboration of our first plan for the Revitalization of the Basque Language.

That is why I know that we can now also learn from the language policies implemented in Québec. Because today we also share similar problems; among others, the question of immigration (how to carry out inclusive intercultural policies); the great attraction of English or Spanish among young people, which leads them to leave aside French or Basque; or to use a variety plagued by Anglicisms or Spanishisms... Spanish is ‘cool’ for many Basque teenagers; English is probably also ‘cool’ for many Québec teenagers. In short, even today we have issues on which to exchange experiences, issues on which we can learn a great deal from Québec.

Is there an event or venue in Montréal that you have heard about and cannot wait to visit?

I've been wanting to see the fall colors for years. At last I will have the opportunity to see all those shades of red, yellow, orange, bronze-red.... I read on the internet that “the fall foliage season in Montréal typically starts in late September and peaks by mid-October”. Cannot wait to see them with my own eyes.

On the other hand, last year I had the opportunity to spend five days in Montréal. Now I can't wait to show my husband the wonderful city that is Montréal: Old Montréal and Old Port, Mount Royal and Outremont, Mile End... and many other places!

CIRM invites you to join Ms. Azkarate for a lunchtime talk on September 22 at 11:30 am. The title of this lunchtime talk is "Rôles des universités et des villes pour la valorisation, l’apprentissage et l’usage des langues en contexte minoritaire. Les exemples de l’Euskara à Donostia-San Sebastián et de la langue française à Montréal". Please note the event will be held in French.

Responding to Ms. Azkarate's address will be Noémie Dansereau-Lavoie (Commissioner of the French language, Ville de Montréal), Marion Vergues (Director and Lecturer, Centre d'enseignement du français, Faculty of Arts, McGill University), Élisabeth Veilleux (Lecturer, Centre d'enseignement du français, Faculty of Arts, McGill University), Manon Gadbois (Faculty of Continuing Education, McGill University), Annie Desnoyers (Faculty of Education Sciences, Université de Montréal)and Marie-Cécile Guillot (Associate Professor and Language Teacher in French as a second language, École des langues, UQAM).

The luncheon is organized in partnership with McGill's Centre d'enseignement du français (CEF).

The event is open to all and free of charge, but places are limited. To book a spot, send an assunta.fiorita [at] (subject: Lunchtime%20talk%20with%20Miren%20Azkarate%20%2F%20September%2022nd) (e-mail to Assunta Fiorita at CRIEM). You have until September 20, 2023!

CIRM is located on the 8th floor of 680 Sherbrooke Street West.

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