“We need to ensure that every student has the opportunity to learn Basque effectively.”

Euskara. Kultura. Mundura.


Dr Harkaitz Zubiri has been the latest Alan R. King Professor in Residence sponsored by the Etxepare Basque Institute at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. The Fellowship is designed to contribute to teaching and knowledge exchange in these fields of sociolinguistics and language policy and planning and to promote mutual knowledge of Basque and Welsh culture and languages.

Zubiri’s research project centres on identifying effective activities for promoting the Basque language in schools and exploring efficient strategies for implementing the activities. His lines of research focus on overcoming inequalities in education, mainly in language learning. Zubiri has taught several seminars and given lectures on his area of research during his time at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies in Aberystwyth (CAWCS). We spoke to Dr Zubiri about his residency and the advances in his research.

What was your experience in Wales like in terms of research?

The main goal was to share information and to explain what each region is doing in schools around language learning in both Wales and the Basque Country. We also set out to share how we address the challenges we’re facing. In Wales significant challenges exist in language learning within schools, but we also face similar issues here in the Basque Country, so sharing what’s happening in each other’s region has been a great help. My residency took place at a research centre that opened many doors for me and allowed me to talk to a lot of people: university researchers, schoolteachers, stakeholders from civil society, members of the government ... It was really enriching. To better understand what is happening with language in schools, we also spent a good deal of time talking about what is happening with education and society in general.

Among other things, your research focuses on activities that are successful for learning Basque in schools and effective ways of promoting them. During your time in Wales, what contribution has the study made?

In recent decades significant strides have been taken to make Basque available to everyone. The opportunity to learn Basque in schools has become widespread. Society and certain public institutions have invested significant effort, and the accomplishments warrant acknowledgment. The data clearly show that deploying the immersion and maintenance models has been fundamental. However, it also highlights the need to implement other improvements. It is not enough for Basque to be the language of instruction. We need to ensure that every student has the opportunity to learn Basque effectively. Some might say that it´s not possible – there are also people who say the earth is flat. But scientific research has clearly shown that all learners can achieve good language proficiency. So far, we have not attained this goal, making it a priority moving forward. It’s often said that students coming from certain socio-economic and cultural backgrounds cannot succeed, but it isn’t true.

Many factors can hinder or facilitate school success, but research has shown that socio-economic and cultural background doesn’t determine success or failure. The key is what happens at school. For example, when successful educational activities are effectively implemented at school, students from migrant families do well, better than the average for their countries. The key is to implement the findings of scientific research. This topic was the priority during the Alan R. King residency.

This is a challenge we´ve faced in Wales as well. It´s been valuable to observe similar issues in a different context and share successful experiences being implemented in various countries.

What did you work on in the seminars and lectures there?

During the seminars, we explored strategies for more effective language learning and discussed ways to ensure that every student has the opportunity to learn the language effectively. In short, language learning opens many doors. The notion that it is impossible for all students to study well isn’t true. In the 1960s it was said that women couldn’t learn mathematics as well as men. From today´s perspective, this is nonsense. The situation is the same in terms of student background and language learning. The key is to implement effective measures in schools.

What determines whether language learning is effective?

To acquire proficiency in the language, it is essential not only to focus on language acquisition. You have to look at the quality of relationships in schools, which also poses a major challenge. The quality of relationships significantly impacts the happiness and well-being of school members, and it is also a crucial factor that can either enhance or diminish the likelihood of effective learning. It’s not a matter of choosing between the quality of relationships and the language learning and content. You have to choose effective actions for both. When the right choice is made, the learning process, the school atmosphere and the enthusiasm are incredible.

What is your assessment of the research carried out in Wales?

The subject was met with a great deal of interest and coincides with the challenges and concerns they’re dealing with currently in Wales, much the same as in the Basque Country. It’s been encouraging. In Wales they’re have been improvements in various areas, and there is enthusiasm among a lot of people to make further improvements. It’s the same as in the Basque Country – yes, there are difficulties, major ones, but there are some real chances to make things better, and we´re already seeing some good changes happening. In places where some thought it couldn´t be done, things have been pulled off successfully. With the right educational activities in play, changes have already started happening.

What are your future challenges in this area of research?

When conducting research, it´s crucial to address the needs of society. Research shouldn´t just be focused on diagnosis; it needs to be more action-oriented and responsive. Research must offer Solutions and focus on social impact. Our society wants to know how all students can achieve success in school. When it comes to language learning, the challenge is evident: How do we ensure that every student has the opportunity to attain a proficient level of Basque? We´re still working on this. We´re studying specific measures, and the results are quite promising.

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