Learning Basque is something I had been thinking about for a long time.
The first time I heard Basque spoken was while watching the Sanfermines on TV: the runners in the world’s most popular bull game pray three times to the patron saint of Pamplona, to protect them as they rush alongside the fierce beasts.
For three times, they pray first in Spanish and then… in a language of sibylline sounds, filled with mystery.
I have spoken to other language enthusiasts and asked them about their first contact with the Basque language. They all remember it well. 😮
Basque has an impact even on those who are not fond of languages. It sparks curiosity for Euskadi and Basqueness. Eventually, some of us find ourselves learning Basque: we like to think that it awakens something, almost primordial, within us.
It is beautiful, it is the vehicle of huge culture and it is by all accounts the oldest living language in Europe.
But, alas, it’s also a tough nut to crack. Entertaining, but complex: one needs guidance to keep motivation up and grind. If you’ll allow me, I’ll tell you how I walked the walk myself.
Hence, here I’m going to talk about how to learn Basque from scratch, with little theory and lots of practice. In other posts, I will be adding details and strategies to progress. 👍
If you’re reading this from a position of scepticism (“Oy vey, Basque looks so impenetrable, I’ll never learn it!”), suspend your disbelief for the space of this guide: there are ways to learn Basque without getting crazier than you already are 😉
Learning Basque: what language is this?
Basque is an agglutinative language: you add suffixes to words to convey what you want to say.
Basque is not Indo-European, meaning that it is in the small, select group of European languages that do not derive from PIE or Proto-Indo-European, i.e. languages that arrived in Europe with the migration of namesake populations.
However, Estonian, Finnish and Hungarian are not Indo-European either: are these four languages first cousins, by any chance? Basque is not. 🤔
Basque is also called euskera, though it should be euskara, but accepted usage has made the first prevalent. The language taught today is the so-called euskera batúa, or “unified Basque“.
Because efforts have been made, not long ago, to reduce the diversity of Basque: the purpose was to achieve a language uniform enough so that every native, with a little study, could use as a mean of communication.
Otherwise, in the past, people from Álava had a terrible time if they wanted to talk to someone from Bilbao: the Basque Country is not immense, but the land is uneven. Orography determines not only the evolution of lizards and birds but also that of languages. ⛰️
Basque is spoken in the Basque Country, Spanish above all, but also French. Then, in Navarre, in the border areas of Cantabria, all over the world in the areas of great Basque-Navarre immigration as well as in the Basque-speaking clubs throughout the planet.
And no: not all Basques speak Basque, but the number of speakers isn’t negligible. A few other features of the language:
- It has no grammatical gender.
- It has declinations: what we say with syntax, prepositions, etc, in Basque it’s expressed with suffixes added to words, just as in languages like Latin, German, Finnish or Russian. 🇷🇺
- One of the cases is ergative.
- It features three grammatical numbers: the singular determinate, the plural determinate and the indeterminate.
Learning Basque: a few basic phrases
Kaixo = Hello
Egun on = Good morning
Arratsalde on = Good afternoon
Gabon = Good night
Aspaldiko = Long time no see
Topa = Cheers!
On egin = Enjoy your meal
Agur bat / Ikusarte = Goodbye
Ni Fabio naiz = I’m Fabio
Nire izena Fabio da = My name is Fabio
Pozten naiz = Pleased to meet you
Zer moduz? = How are you?
Ondo esan beharko = It could be worse
Oso ondo = Very well
Ongi, eta zu? = Good, and you?
Barkatu = I’m sorry
Ez = No
Bai = Yes
Bai noski = Yes, of course
Ere ez = Neither
Ados = Okay
¿Ados? = Agreed?
Goazen = Let’s go
Barkatu = Excuse me
Hara = Wow
Ikusi = Look
Ni atzerritarra naiz = I am a foreigner
Ez dut euskaraz hitz egiten = I don’t speak Basque
Euskara ikasten ari naiz, baina oso zaila da = I’ve been learning Basque, but it’s very difficult
Hori zortea = What luck
Eguraldi ona dago = It’s good weather
Egun ederra ez? = What a nice day, isn’t it?
Inola ere ez = Not at all / No way
Eskerrik asko = Thank you very much
Ez horregatik = You’re welcome
Learning Basque: top 5 reasons for doing it
I have a hundred reasons, but let’s start with five.
#1 Having Basque ancestors
It’s one of the most powerful reasons: the world is full of descendants of adventurous Basques. Parents, grandparents or great-grandparents.
What is the point of learning the language of your ancestors, if you communicate or used to communicate with them in another language? Well, to get closer to your roots, viewing language as something you hold in your heart, not only a tool you use to tell grandma to pass the salt. 👵
This is something I have a hard time to get people on: the languages of your ancestors shaped who you are even if you have no idea what languages were those.
Your ancestors’ language is part of the alchemy that, generation after generation, has made you who you are today: that makes learning Basque a probe into the depth of your being.
But if the Basque speaker is a partner or an acquired relative, well, it is a way of connecting with them on a whole ‘nother level, and also to know what they say when they talk and make fun with someone in Basque 😈
#2 Basque gastronomy is superior
Yes, why be humble when you belong to the Olympus of food. From seafood to mountain products, my shape has never been more at risk of becoming a balloon than here. Here you have a glimpse of the danger I’m talking about:
Basque Country: A Culinary Journey Through a Food Lover’s Paradise, by Marti Buckley: an awesome tome about classical Basque cuisine. 😋
The noble art of pintxos began here. Then, cod in pil-pil sauce, marmitako, intxaursaltsa, the Basque pie filled with custard or Itxassou cherry; not to forget txacolí, the red wine from La Rioja Alavesa, the apple cider tasted in the local sagardotegis. Slurp.
#3 Basque is a time machine
It is likely the oldest language in Europe. After Stephen Hawking proved that travelling in time is impossible, in the physical realms, all is left is to travel in time linguistically.
It is reasonable to assume that before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans, with their chariots and horses, something more or less similar to Basque was spoken all over the continent: nowadays, speaking Basque is the linguistic equivalent of using a Stegosaurus as a mean of transport (and in both cases, a lot of fun). 🦕
#4 Checking that Armenian lead…
According to some, Armenian and Basque are somehow related. I won’t go further, because the matter is more articulated than ever.
What do I think? That the Armenian-Basque connection is built upon a heavy foundation of fantasy, at the moment. On the other hand, I believe one day we will discover the origin of the Basque language. Not three hundred years ago, scholars hadn’t even fathomed the existence of an Indo-European language family. 🤯
Now, we have powerful tools to dig into history: linguistics, genetics, archaeology, physics, history. Sooner or later, we’ll know if Basque is akin to a Caucasian, Tibetan or a Berber language.
#5 Visiting the Basque Country
The Basque-speaking area is, uhm, what’s the right adjective… uhm, ah yeah! Freaking terrific.
There are cities, parks, beaches, islands, museums, events and festivals to spend years there and just not getting enough. For example:
- Visit the Guggenheim, 🖼️
- go to an Athletic Bilbao match (a team that only admits Basque players),
- going to La Concha beach,
- run the Behobia-San Sebastián marathon,
- visit Game of Thrones’s Dragonstone (yep, it’s there. In the vernacular, Gaztelugatxeko Doniene). 🐉
But the Basque Country has A LOT more to offer. I may sound like a teenager in love for the first time, but every corner of this region is tantalizing: hamlets, woods, hills, bars, even farms! Farms! The hard part here isn’t learning Basque: it’s going back home.
Learning Basque: starting
You should introduce yourself gently into the world of Basque, with books suitable for slow learners like myself. The textbook below is suited to English speakers:
Colloquial Basque – The Complete Language Course for Beginners: it does not proclaim improbable outcomes: my estimation is a solid A2, which is a good result if you consider the potential of any self-teaching method and the complexity of the Basque language.
Most of the words you’ll encounter in Colloquial Basque will be given with their meaning, but as you’re embarking on a challenging linguistic adventure, my suggestion is to put a good dictionary in the luggage:
Basque-English English-Basque Dictionary, by the University of Nevada Press. It’s great for beginners and intermediate learners; if you get to an advanced stage, I’ll then suggest something else.
After two or three months of working this way, you will have eventually achieved some A1, mild A2 abilities. That when I’d add some graded readers, to soften the task.
Learning Basque: graded readers for A1-A2 levels
After some hard learning, a bit of graded readers does not harm. There is some choice out there, but I’d recommend you those, in terms of interest being sparkled and the level they offer:
Siberiako lorea by Josu Lartategi: there is little else at an A1 level, unless you go to the early childhood section of the bookshop (which is a sound option even for adults, from the didactic viewpoint).
Tangoa noizean behin: it’s Miren Agur Meabe now. A mini-mystery is the centre of the booklet. Some make fun of me, but not only it was useful studying it: I actually liked it. I vouch for these below too:
Naia eta eskultore itsua, by Alvaro Rabelli
Zisnea eta uhartea, by Miren Agur Meabe
Istanbulen Elkartuko Gara, by Richard Chisholm and Jose Antonio Mujika Kasares: these last three are valuable learning tools too, at this stage of your learning.
To be honest, we’d like to have a broader choice, but truth is, we have to wait for more fluency before tackling more interesting readings. It’s all we can do: learn Basque as best as we can.
Learning Basque: 7 tips for beginners
#1 Letting go of “Basque is easy”
Easy and difficult are undefined categories, so everyone can say whatever they please. In language methods, courses, Internet forums, mobile Apps, you’ll get bored of reading:
Basque is easy! Who said it’s difficult? It’s an urban legend!
LOL. 🥒 As a native English speaker, it will take you less time to master Dutch or even Italian than Basque. It’s a fact.
The point is: Do we want to become chasers of what’s easy? In life, it’s better to fight tigers than yawns. If you truly intend to emphasize the divergence with English, frame it in terms of distance.
Basque is further away than French, yes; but thinking in terms of facility or difficulty puts you on the wrong path: consider instead how enriching the Basque language and its culture are, how plenty the opportunities for those who know them. 🤑
Saying that Basque is more difficult is a false start. Like saying that going to the beach is a bad idea because:
- it’s going to be warm,
- the seaside trinkets are heavy,
- UVA rays produce melanomas, 🥵
- sand will seep into every orifice,
- children playing will be a nuisance,
- two balls and three frisbees will reach your head,
- the nearby grandpas will be screaming like parrots, 🦜
- no way you’ll manage to park in the shade,
- the whole world will see the food you stored during winter in your adipose cells, as a bear about to winter.
Suddenly, the idea of spending a pleasant afternoon by the sea does not seem so attractive, does it? I rest my case.
#2 The best time to start is now
Learning Basque is a long journey. Put time to work for you: an hour a day, or half an hour, during months will yield far better results than outbursts of ten hours a day for a couple of weeks.
If the Basque language, or the Basque Country, belong to your plans, start today. 📅
There are people on Internet forums who suggest a lot of nonsense. For example:
Wait until you’re settled in Euskadi: the Basque Government will pay for your Basque language course.
It is true that, in Navarre and Euskadi, institutions encourage the learning of the language, but you have to understand something: courses aren’t ubiquitous, nor at any time of day, nor they tend to be cheap; in fact, euskaltegis and barnitegis may be as expensive as Bentley cars. 🏎️
Moreover, this idea of postponing learning Basque once you’ve moved to Basque soil is ludicrous. It kind of implies that you could master Basque in a matter of one, two, three courses. Forget about it! Achieving fluency in Basque takes much more than that.
#3 A lot can be learned on one’s own
Despite the challenges posed by the language, the materials available for learning Basque on your own are high-quality, affordable and easy to get. For a language spoken by a little more than a million humans, it’s freaking awesome. 👌
#4 Connecting with Basques and the Basque Country
If you have the chance to meet Basque people, reach a Basque-Navarre club somewhere, visit Euskadi, do it. It will help you learn and motivate you to continue.
#5 Get acquainted with the structure of Basque
Zer edan nahi duzu?
What drink you want /aux of ukan-to have/?
The sentence above means: What would you drink?
Basque has gears that work differently from English: it is useful to start by translating word by word, suffix by suffix, to decrypt it.
#6 Quality yes, quantity no
Don’t swallow endless word lists, don’t try to read books that are currently out of your reach, don’t watch films in the original version that you already know you won’t understand. You will lose the will to go on.
We need challenges, but we also need those small successes that push us to keep going. 👊
What you need to do, at this stage, is to become familiar with the ABC of the language: how sentences are built, how letters and syllables are pronounced, the minimum essential vocabulary. There will be time enough to translate Shakespeare into Basque or to learn how to say Irish southwestern pineberry.
#7 Audio tracks are gold
Basque is neither Arabic nor Chinese, i.e. languages whose pronunciation is an impassable obstacle for the English native: nevertheless, you do need to befriend Basque pronunciation and prosody. 🎵
For all these, you have to include in your Basque diet a good amount of audio content. Listen to it and repeat after the speaker; listen to the audio track while you’re reading the text: before you know it, you will have secured the basics of the Basque speech.
Learning Basque: know more
The Basque History Of The World by Mark Kurlanski: it’s a concise yet informative summary of Basque history. The topic, trust me, isn’t an easy thing to deal with. Kurlanski may leave aside some parts of it, but of all the complex there are on our earth to deal with, the Basque is second to none.
Another way to approach Basqueness is through cinema. You can start from here:
In the Basque Country, there are some excellent filmmakers: Loreak is a good appetizer.
Learning Basque: conclusions
I hope this post on how to start learning Basque has been to your liking. These are just a few first steps. 🗺️
There is more work, more materials and more delight awaiting you if you take this path. But now, if you wish to:
- find out how to keep learning Basque,
- broaden your knowledge of Basque history and society,
- find out how mastering the Basque language can become a huge professional asset, 👔
then, read this guide: Intermediate Basque: Keep Learning Euskadi’s Language.
Learning the language, putting together these guides and building a website to share this it was a big effort for me. If you find this useful, would you please share it with your contacts? It would help me make this project sustainable.
Thank you for the time taken to read this. Aurki arte 🖖
Your personal linguistic advisor,