32. Frisian – Basque – multilingualism

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Durk Gorter1,2

  1. Ikerbasque, Basque Foundation for Science
  2. University of the Basque Country, UPV/EHU


Multilingualism comes with many attributes and has a lot of aspects. In this note, two European minority languages, Frisian and Basque, are briefly compared in order to show how they are historically embedded in a complex multilingual context.

Frisian is mainly spoken in the land of the black-and-white cows with the same name as the language and its inhabitants. About half of the population of the province of Friesland in the Netherlands, usually speaks Frisian at home, although almost all of its 640.000 inhabitants can speak Dutch, the socially dominant language. In traditional macro-sociolinguistic terms this could be characterized as a ´bilingual province´. However, the label ´bilingual´ does no justice to far more complex language practices of its inhabitants. Historically, various language varieties have been used in some towns, on its islands and in specific areas. In the capital Leeuwarden-Ljouwert, probably in the 16th century, a variety emerged called Town Frisian (Stedfrysk / Stadsfries) due to political and economic changes leading to intensified daily contact between speakers of Frisian and Dutch. Over time a common variety developed which can also be found in at least six other Frisian towns. Furthermore, different varieties are used on three of the four Frisian Islands. There are speakers in northern, eastern and south-eastern parts of the province who use still other varieties, some related to Low-Saxon.

The foregoing is a succinct, almost classic description of ´the´ language situation in Friesland, but even if all the other varieties are taken into consideration, the approach is still based on separate languages and their distribution in society. The description remains incomplete and is founded mainly on assumptions of monolingual speakers in specific homogeneous geographic locations, who as a rule would use only one variety among each other, or, at most, two in contact with others. This view, of course, does not do justice to the multilingual complexity and language diversity of the area. For example, Latin played a role as language of the church (less so after the Reformation) and of academia (less after the 19th century). Also ´German´, including varieties of Low German, played a role due to groups of seasonal labourers, mainly from Westphalia, who came during the summers from the 17th century onwards. Today immigrants, expats, refugees and others come from all over the world and bring their languages with them: probably over a 100 named languages are spoken on the territory. English is an important language among migrants and visitors, but English is also common as a second or third language. In surveys over 90% of the population reported that they can have a conversation in English. The old image of a bilingual region where Frisian and Dutch are spoken needs to be replaced by an image of a multilingual assemblage in a geographic, socio-economic and political area where speakers use multilingual repertoires and where communication takes place in numerous languages.

In their daily lives, however, most people will be confronted, most of the time, with Dutch, because it is socially dominant. English needs to be added, a language that cannot be avoided because of its strong presence in old and new media, in the linguistic landscapes of public spaces and in education. Frisian will be included in the daily mixture for about half of the population. The minority language has shown a remarkable tenacity, notwithstanding predictions of rapid language loss. Other languages play a role in the lives of relatively few people. For example, the secondary school teacher of Latin will have a deep daily involvement with a language that 99.9% of the population rarely is confronted with. Even though people may see Latin words when reading their medical record, visiting the botanical garden, or during their school days, probably most speakers will not recognize loanwords of Latin origin incorporated in their vocabulary. German and French used to be characterized as ´modern foreign languages´, a designation that now sounds old-fashioned, although the two languages are still taught as a subject to a large proportion of the secondary school students. Some groups with a stronger presence in society have Turkish, Moroccan, Chinese or Antillean origins. They are not only speakers of Turkish Arabic, Mandarin, or Papiamentu, but also of Kurdish, Berber, Cantonese or Spanish. For them their languages are crucial for communication in local and global (!) networks, but in Frisian society-at-large or in education those languages hardly play a role. Other languages are spoken inside a handful of households and even if those varieties may occasionally be overheard in public space, they play an insignificant role at a societal level.

Basque is the oldest language in Europe with unknown origins, as many of its speakers are eager to inform. Basque is respected and renowned among linguists because of its ´exotic characteristics´ and classified as an ´isolate´, because it has no demonstrable genetic relationship to any Indo-European language. Among language policy makers and specialists in minority languages, Basque is known for its resilience and the remarkable revitalization that has taken place over the last 40 years. The label Basque is also known to a larger public because the name of the language coincides with the name for the people, for the region, and for many things originating there. The government recognizes Basque and Spanish both as official languages, but to characterize the region as just ´bilingual´ does not do justice to the complexity of the language mosaic. The many dialectal varieties of Basque have been spoken in the territory since time immemorial and the standardized version, Euskara Batua, was only created in the 1960s. After Basque declined in the 19th and 20th century due to economic developments and a 40 year political dictatorship, the minority language has regained some ground during the last decades of the 20th century. It has advanced literally, because Basque is now taught and used again in geographic areas where it was (almost completely) lost for a long time. It has also made progress figuratively, because the language has gradually reconquered the education system to such an extent that today over 80% of newly registered children in pre-primary school go to the Basque medium model. However, also Basque is part of a wider configuration of languages, in which Castilian (or Spanish) plays a hegemonic role. Not just that Spanish has the largest number of speakers and is used by a majority of the inhabitants of the Basque lands, but also because Spanish continues to dominate the public sphere in almost any domain of social life. However, Basque is making some headway due to a robust language policy. Today Basque is held in high esteem and treated with profound respect by many. Still, Basque is the underdog and there is a strong awareness of a continuous struggle against Spanish, which is taken for granted and has a nearly invincible position.

During industrialization in the 20th century immigrants from other parts of Spain, such as Andalucía, brought their varieties of Spanish; more recently the largest groups of immigrants come from Latin-American adding several other varieties. Today newly arrived immigrants, refugees and expats come from many different parts of the world, mainly from Africa and Europe and obviously, they take the language(s) first learned with them. Nowadays English gradually makes inroads into the schools and into Basque society, as almost anywhere else in the world. English has high social prestige and becomes a marketable product: diplomas for achieving a level in English are sold to parents as a valuable addition to the CV of their children. In a way similar to Friesland, one can count over a 100 different languages that are spoken in the Basque Country. However, also here most people will be confronted with a rather limited number of languages in their everyday lives. Anywhere in the Basque Country people are exposed to varieties of Basque and Spanish and increasingly so English. Other languages may only be seen here and there in the linguistic landscape, for example, Chinese on shops and restaurants in the cities and towns. Other varieties are probably overheard very little as they are used by relatively small numbers of speakers.

Similarities and differences

Ideas about languages and language groups have been revised in recent years as sociolinguistics has taken a ´multilingual turn´. An idealized vision would possibly like to conceive of Friesland as historically only speaking Frisian and the Basque Country as just speaking Basque. Even if such monolingual assumptions seem outdated and can easily be refuted, they are sometimes persistent. As shown above, the designation ´bilingual´ is also inaccurate, but then the issue is how can the multilinguality of these two European areas be characterized? Probably, these language constellations with over a hundred languages can be portrayed as ´superdiverse´. In the linguistic landscapes in public spaces in both regions various language or at least traces of them, can be observed. It is known that the boundaries between languages are more fuzzy and fluid than usually thought. In the case of Frisian and Dutch, two closely related Germanic languages, distinguishing the two is often impossible, but also in the case of Basque and Spanish, languages said to have a substantial linguistic distance, differentiating them can be challenging. Speakers of Frisian and Basque can be said to ´translanguage´ as they move seemingly effortless between their various languages. Legislation and language policies concentrate on measures to support revitalization of the minority language. In the case of Frisian, a modest and relatively weak set of measures is in place, whereas the policies developed for Basque are much broader and far more engaging and dynamic. In both cases, education is seen as of utmost importance, but desired language practices of students are not guaranteed as an outcome. In general terms, a hierarchical order between the languages relates to differences in social and political power and socio-economic prestige.

In the end, an image of a rich multilingual assemblage emerges both in Friesland and in the Basque Country, because languages are used in dynamic, ever changing constellations. In research studies a focus on multilingualism can bring about new insights about multilingual speakers in their own right, about their linguistic repertoires and about practices that depend on historically evolving social contexts.

Suggestions for further reading:

Cenoz, J. & Gorter, D. (2017). Minority languages and sustainable translanguaging: threat or opportunity? Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 38:10, 901-912, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2017.1284855

Cenoz, J., & Gorter, D. (2014). Focus on multilingualism as an approach in educational contexts. In A.Blackledge & A.Creese (Eds.) Heteroglossia as practice and pedagogy (pp. 239-254). Springer, Dordrecht. DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-7856-6_13

Gorter, D., & Cenoz, J. (2011). Multilingual education for European minority languages: the Basque Country and Friesland. International Review of Education57(5-6), 651-666. DOI: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11159-011-9248-2

Gorter, D., & Cenoz, J. (2017). Language education policy and multilingual assessment. Language and Education31(3), 231-248. DOI: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09500782.2016.1261892

Website: www.ehu.eus/multilingualism

Video: “Let’s make the most of multilingualism” with some of our ideas can be found here: