It’s been well over four months since I posted on my Basque learning. Basque is a fascinating language “isolate”, related to no other and spoken by about 600,000 people on both sides of the western end of the Franco-Spanish border. Yes, I’m still at it and in this post I’ll bring things up-to-date. Let’s mine some tips from my story too, to help you sustain your elementary-level studies so you can move towards those intermediate slopes.
My big announcement is that in under two week’s time, I’m off to the Basque country in northern Spain for a four-week intensive Basque course. I’m excited about this opportunity and it’s given my studies a real focus. More about the trip at the end.
Are you logging your language learning efforts?
As regular readers of the blog would expect, I’ve been following my own advice and logging my language learning efforts. Recording what you’ve done helps build up a track record that you won’t want to break, especially if it’s shared with your tutor, a language mentor or another accountability group such as the Add1Challenge.
In my last up-date, I reported 59 hours of study between the beginning of September and the end of March. Including, altogether, 48 half hour Skype speaking sessions. This averaged out very roughly at 15 minutes a day up to the end of February and half an hour a day in March.
Here are the figures for April to July:
|April 2016||May 2016||June 2016|
|Lessons with Joseba: 7||Lessons with Joseba: 4||Lessons with Joseba: 5|
|Lessons with Irantzu: 0||Lessons with Irantzu: 0||Lessons with Irantzu: 0|
|30 min self-study sessions: 14||30 min self-study sessions: 1||3o min self-study sessions: 0|
|90 min classes attended: 2||90 min classes attended:2||90 min classes attended: 0|
|Total hours: 14.5||Total hours: 5.5||Total hours: 2.5|
|Notional mins/day: 29||Notional mins/day: 10.5||Notional mins/day: 13|
|July 2016||August 2016 (to 23rd)|
|Lessons with Joseba: 1||Lessons with Joseba: 0|
|Lessons with Irantzu: 0||Lessons with Irantzu: 2|
|Lessons with Elene: 6||Lessons with Elene: 8|
|30 min self-study sessions: 5||30 min self-study sessions: 33|
|Total hours: 6||Total hours: 21.5|
|Notional mins/day: 11.5||Notional mins/day: 56|
Over the last three years, I’ve put in at least 260 hours studying Basque: 150 hours in three “Add1Challenges”, the 59 hours from September to March and now another 50 hours. The first year and a half of study – apart from the Add1Challenge – I wasn’t logging so the time beyond the Challenge is not counted.
The weekly classes organised by the London Basque Society finished for the summer in the middle of June. Once again, my attendance has not been particularly good. I find ninety minute sessions at the elementary level a bit much after a day at work. My enthusiasm was not helped by a change in the time to half an hour later. The location further out than my office from home so it’s an effort to get there and to get back home afterwards.
To put a positive gloss on this, I’ve been just about keeping up the contact with the class, using it to reinforce my studies when I can and to maintain and enjoyable social dimension to my learning. For me, though, the steady progress I feel I’m making has been driven by self-study and practice on Skype.
You’ll see from the log how I consciously wound down my study efforts in May and June in particular. This was because preparation for my advanced Russian exam at the beginning of June was ramping up as my absolute main focus. In my own defence, the reason I missed the last three Basque lessons was because I was working on my Russian.
My aim was just to keep up some Basque speaking practice during those two months, to keep the language “simmering” on the back burner. I was doing hardly any active study.
But to keep the language going a little was really important.
I’ve been able to return to my advanced languages after pauses of years. With elementary languages, though, the roots a much shallower (if they are there at all!). To mix the metaphor:
> if you’re still at an elementary or lower intermediate stage with your language, you do all you can to keep going. Don’t try to turn off the thrust before the rocket is in orbit or you’ll have to work hard again to get back off the ground.
For the last two months, the situation has reversed. Russian is “in maintenance” and Basque has moved to the fore (plus some French).
In July and August, Basque has become my main focus, with a very specific short-term goal and treat: the trip to Euskal Herria (the Basque Country).
I’ve had the idea in mind for quite a while and it gave me additional motivation to keep practising in the hectic pre-exam days, when I could otherwise easily have put my Basque to one side.
> use specific intermediate goals imaginatively. Three to six months is a good period to look forward.
The closer the end, the harder it is to justify skipping or slacking (provided the end is not so near that there seems no time to save the situation and point in making an effort). Knowing that my Basque trip was five, four, three months ahead provided an incentive to keep it simmering while my attention was mainly focussed on Russian. After the Russian exam, I’ve had two months to go. It feels worth focussing because you can do a lot in that time.
For me the motivation is to be able to “hit the ground running” in my upcoming summer course in the Basque country and secure a place in the highest group possible (so I’m surrounded by people better than me).
This summer, I’ve been trying to ramp up my lessons only to find difficulty getting hold of my teachers. It’s holiday season, of course and my regular italki teacher Joseba has been away for most of July and August.
As flagged up in previous post finding teachers or exchange partners can be a challenge with smaller languages (although on the other hand, there may be fewer learners chasing their services and your interest may inspire people to help you – every speaker counts and the effort you’re making can win sympathies).
I approached Elene, my London class teacher, and she saved me by agreeing to give me some additional tuition over Skype and was very available.
My long-term informal conversation partner Irantzu is also around this summer, which is a huge help.
> Have several teachers lined up if you can.
> Be proactive – find people who can help you either as paid teachers or conversation partners or as part of a language exchange.
I could have been even more proactive. I have not spoken to Oriol, my partner in the Basque online Mintzanet pairing scheme, for months. I haven’t been energetic enough about chasing him up….but I’ve only got so much energy, and I’ve done a lot with my other partners nonetheless.
Study materials and methods
I’ve mainly been revising as much as I can of the materials we use in my London class and I use these to provide exercises and material for discussion for my Skype sessions. I try to work though them in advance of the Skype lessons too, although all too often I find myself frantically pulling them out of a pile of papers just before the lesson beings. A lot of the Skype lessons goes on general “catching up” chit-chat too.
My other goal for July and August has been to work through as much as I can of Alan King’s The Basque Language (University of Nevada Press, 1994). This is by far the most comprehensive textbook available in English and has a wealth of explanation, reading material and exercises with correction. I had not used the book before and I have started at unit 1. The idea is to have a complete revision of what I’ve done so far in class and to get a bit further.
I’ve had Basque radio on a lot since early July when I could take a break from Russian broadcasts.
The soundtrack to my twice or thrice weekly half-hour runs has been the audio to the Assimil Basque course for many, many months now.
Both give me some passive exposure, helping to tune my ear to the music of the language and it’s good when I suddenly “get” snippets of the Assimil I’ve been stuck on or understand snippets from the radio.
Remember you’ll never learn from passive exposure alone, though. It only makes sense if you’re actively interacting with the language and trying to speak.
I took part in three Basque social events here in London this summer which provided a great chance to practise the language a bit and build up my Basque network.
“Baskfest” was a three-day Basque festival which took place over the first weekend in June. It was organised as part of the Donostia (San Sebastian) European Capital of Culture celebrations.
I was in the thick of my Russian studies then but I set aside the Friday night to zip up from my office in the “City” (financial district) to Dalston to join in the opening evening.
The location was a warehouse-type exhibition space called The Hive. There was a display of contemporary artwork by Basque artists, Basque wine and pintxos (Basque tapas) and a live performance on the txalaparta (a Basque percussion instrument).
I spoke quite a lot of Basque at the event. My teacher Elene was there and I met an old gentleman who lives on the same street in Leytonstone (east London) where I lived when I first moved to the city 12 years ago. Hau kasualitate! (What a coincidence!). He who was very taken with a foreigner wanting to learn the language.
On the third Friday in June a Basque Food evening organised by Imanol, a guy who runs a Basque food import/catering business here in London and whom I vaguely know as he used to be the barman at the London Welsh Centre. His wife is Welsh. Some members of the Basque society were also there.
On the second Saturday in July the Basque Society organised its own version of the famous San Fermin bull run in Iruñea (Pamplona). Attending the real thing in 2013 was the last time I went to the Basque Country. The London version involved a slightly less dangerous “bull” (involving a papier mâché bull’s head) and food and traditional games (tug-of-war, sack race…) in a park afterwards.
> If you’re aiming to speak the language and don’t have an obvious need for the language (work, family, existing relationships), it’s really important to build up your own network.
I’m really lucky to live in a city with so much going on. If you’re not living in the thick of it, creating a social context for your language is a challenge to work on over time. It won’t happen over night. The whole social side a strong reason why I’ve kept going with the classes, which are in other ways – for a relative introvert like me who enjoys self-study – an inefficient use of my time.
Off to the Basque country
My intensive course runs Monday 5 to Friday 30th September. I’m actually doing two two-week courses one after the other.
It’s at the “Maizpide” barnetegia in the village of Laskao. A barnetegia is a residential school where only Basque is studied. There are quite a number of them dotted around the Basque Country. They typically offer “extensive” courses (a hour or two once or twice a week) and also “intensive” (full-time) courses. A text about Maizpide actually features in one of the lessons in the materials we’re using in class here in London.
Laskao is a village in Gipuzkoa. Gipuzkoa is one of the six, historical Basque provinces. Together with Bizkaia and Araba it forms the Basque Autonomous region in the Spanish state. The proportion of speakers in a community can be an important consideration when you’re learning a minority language and Gipuzkoa is one of the provinces where the language is strongest. I’ve heard that Laskao is a particularly “Basque” place.
The village seems to be very small, with two slightly larger settlements nearby all set in beautiful, green hills.
There will be eight hours of classes a day, including, it seems on the middle weekend of each two-week course. So it’s going to be quite intensive. Otherwise, I don’t know much about what’s coming. The website is spectacularly taciturn and my email communication direct with the organisers has been limited. The phrase “getting blood out of a stone” comes to mind (I’m sure there’ll be an equally vivid way of saying that in Basque).
I had to do a pre-course on-line assessment which revealed me to be about A2 level (elementary)(a heady 1+ on the ILR scale often used in the USA).
It’s going to be interesting to see where I am after a month’s intensive study. I’m hoping that month will be one of more-or-less total immersion. That’s the barnetegia ethos and it should help that I don’t speak a word of Spanish (well, besides gracias!).
As well as the hoped-for progress, I’m also looking forward to finding out about the methods used and to seeing how I cope speaking Basque out and about. The area has a very high percentage of Basque speakers.
I hope there’ll be time to explore the surrounding area too. There’s a cheese festival at nearby Ordizia in September. I love cheese, so hope to be able to visit that, if we’re let out at all 😉
There will be students there from across the ability level. I’ve no idea how many, though. I guess there’ll be one or two other foreigners, though perhaps not many. I hope new friendships will be forged around our common goal.
Could see yourself doing an intensive residential course in your language? Have you done one already? Let me know in the comments below or write and tell me about your experiences and hopes by email!
I’m intending to blog and vlog what happens to me at Maizpide and I hope you’ll stay tuned with me along the way.