Kinku Zinkunegi: “Basque teachers at the Euskal Etxeak show enormous motivation and involvement”

Euskara. Kultura. Mundura.


From January 14th to 21st twenty people are sharing quarters at the ´Gure Etxea´ Basque Centre of Tandil, Argentina. Their nine-day stay is aimed at becoming more proficient in the Basque language. Most of them are from different cities in Argentina, although some are also from Uruguay. They began studying Euskara three years ago, and will soon become Basque teachers at an Euskal Etxea or Basque Centre. The Euskara Munduan programme, promoted by the Etxepare Basque Institute, is designed to raise awareness of the Basque language among Basque communities around the world. Therefore, it is crucial to train a team of teachers. We caught up with Kinku Zinkunegi, programme coordinator, to learn how Euskara Munduan works.

-You’re in charge of an intensive teacher training course for Basque teachers in Tandil, Argentina. What are the goals of the course?

-The barnetegis (full-immersion, live-in Euskara courses) are part of the learning process. The participants are from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil, all 10,000 kilometres from the geographical area where Basque is spoken. For the most part, their relationship is virtual, so it’s important to meet in person from time to time to acquire content and skills that require interaction, oral expression in particular. For 17 weeks, from March to July, they study online, and then we do a barnetegi experience. From August to December, we followed the same plan, with another barnetegi in January, which is what we’re doing now. They usually last about 56 hours and are designed to consolidate the knowledge acquired so far. This group started learning Basque in 2020. Covid-19 made the first phase of the process difficult because we couldn´t get them together until January last year, and the barnetegis had to be online. However, the group has responded very well, and we’ve made headway in spite of the setbacks.

-One of the particularities of these barnetegis is that the trainees are from those countries and will later become teachers.

One of the objectives of the Euskara Munduan programme is to bolster and consolidate the teaching staff at Basque Centres. Until relatively recently, Euskara classes at the Basque Centres were very precarious. They were often taught by people from the Basque Country who had moved to a particular city for work reasons and were willing to teach on a voluntary basis. But the classes were often suspended indefinitely when the teachers returned home. To address this challenge, we started to train local teachers, giving the Basque Centres greater independence and guarantees. Many Basque Centres are now able to offer Basque classes thanks to the teachers we’ve trained over the years. In fact, people trained in previous courses, some of them accredited at C1 level, are now teaching in the barnetegis, guaranteeing the programme’s ripple effect.

-What path do these students follow to become teachers in an Euskal Etxea?

-Becoming a Basque teacher is by no means an easy task. These people show enormous motivation and involvement. The Basque Centres pick the future teachers, and we tell them about the process and the conditions. They are required to attend 80% of the online activities, take part in the barnetegis and meet the minimum level of proficiency established annually. As a guarantee, the people sign a commitment with their Basque Centre.

Once they’ve reached the minimum level of Basque required to become a teacher (in South America it’s level B1), we offer them teacher training. Most of them have other professions, so they need some basic teaching tools. That’s why we organise Teachers´ Meetings in South America, North America and Europe. I should say that the levels in each place are very different. For example, in Europe, the Basque teachers are usually very professional. The situation in North America is quite different. There are too few people to meet the demand and, in some cases, local teachers are not literate even though Basque is their mother tongue. This shortage means that we often have to rely on people who have moved from the Basque Country for work or personal reasons. As a result, the teaching team is highly fluid, and the Teachers´ Meetings have varying goals.

-How many students have come together for this barnetegi and where are they from?

-We brought together 20 people from Argentina and Uruguay. This time the students from Chile and Brazil could not attend for different reasons.

-Some of these people have travelled a long way to take part in the training. People who are not familiar with the Euskal Etxeak will be struck by the commitment they show.

-It’s true. Sometimes people start teaching Basque as they learn it, because there’s a need. This was more common a few years ago. I’ve known people who travelled every week a distance that was like from Irun to Burgos to give Basque classes, or who crossed the Río de la Plata from Montevideo every Saturday to give classes in Buenos Aires. As teacher training has improved, these kinds of cases have become less frequent. At the same time, advances in technology have helped a lot in avoiding situations like this. This is hard for us here to wrap our heads around. No one would even think that someone from Bilbao would go to Zaragoza, which is 300 kilometres away, every week to teach Basque.

-You’ll be spending a week together in Tandil. What are the day-to-day dynamics? What kind of activities do you do?

-The weekly schedule is intense. In the past there were two-week courses, 60 hours, from Monday to Friday.  A few years ago, for different reasons (economic issues, some people work and need special leave or holidays to attend, etc.) we shortened the barnetegis to nine days. They now start on a Saturday and end on the Sunday of the following week. This way, despite being very compact, there are 56 class hours and if anyone needs to take leave, only has to ask for one week. We divide the day into four sessions. The first one is from 9:00 to 11:00. After the break, at 11:30, we hold the second session until 1:00. In the evening, we start at 6:00 with individual work. After half an hour break, we hold the last session, from 7:30 to 9:00, followed by dinner. There is little free time and after lunch, the Basque Centre hosting the course usually organises guided tours of the city, visits to museums, etc.

-You´ve been coordinating Euskara Munduan for almost 30 years. How many Basque teachers has the programme "produced" during this time?

-In the format I mentioned – first teaching the language and then training them to teach – since 1990 we’ve trained around 120 teachers, mainly in South America, where there is a larger Basque diaspora. Much of this success is owed to the collaboration from international organisations, including NABO (North American Basque Organizations), FIVU (Federation of Basque Institutions of Uruguay), and the local Euskal Etxeak Basque centres. Of particular importance is the cooperation and impetus from FEVA (Federation of Argentine Basque Entities), which has accompanied us on this journey from the beginning, first by helping to launch the Argentina Euskaraz project and then the Euskara programme. It´s true that during this time we´ve had a lot of ups and downs. For one thing, people have dropped out. In fact, most of the teachers start learning Basque when they’re very young, when they’re university students. As the years go by, their availability changes: they find a job, start a family and are forced to give it up. Also, Argentina´s instability

-How many people are currently learning Euskara in the Basque Centres?

-On average, we have about 2000 adult learners every year. In recent years, due to Covid-19, there’s been a decline, but the number held steady at around 1500. This year we’re back up to 2000. In addition, several Euskal Etxeak organise children´s workshops to introduce them to the Basque language and once a year they organise a weekend gathering with games, contests, etc. I should also mention the case of the Euskal Echea school in Buenos Aires. It’s the only educational centre outside the Basque Country that includes Basque in its curriculum. There are two locations and a total of 2000 children in primary and secondary school who have Basque as a subject.

-Do many drop out along the way?

-In teacher training groups, very few. Before they start, it’s very clearly explained to them what the process is like and what the requirements are. For example, in this group, 30 started in 2020 and 25 are still in the group today.

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