A low-budget soap opera has proved the most successful tool of an educational campaign to familiarize Basques with their own language - the oldest and the most mysterious in Europe.

Since it premiered last fall on the first channel of Basque regional television, ''Goenkale'' (''Main Street'') has reached half million viewers a week. That's nearly as many people as are thought to speak Basque in Spain's three northeastern Basque provinces.

''Goenkale'' (pronounced go-in-ka-lay) chronicles the lives of two estranged brothers who live in a fishing village in Spain's Basque country bordering the Bay of Biscay.

''The success of 'Goenkale' lies in its great realism,'' says Cesar Martinez, a sociologist at the University of the Basque Country. ''It depicts everyday life in Arralde, a village where the old Basque rural world and a newer urban environment clash.''

Arralde's traditional lifestyle is disrupted as the picturesque fishing village is turned into a tourist resort, a problem that many recession-hit Basque fishing villages face today. The local tavern is the focal point of the program. Many of the characters have relatives who emigrated to the United States.

Director Inaki Eizmendi says the success of ''Goenkale'' is unprecedented for Euskal Telebista, the regional public station that broadcasts half its programming in Euskera, the Basques' name for their language. The station reaches 2.5 million viewers, but Basque is spoken by only about a fourth of the people in Spain's three Basque provinces, the three French Basque provinces across the border, and the separate region of Navarre.

Twenty-five years ago, Basque seemed on the verge of dying out. During the 1939-1975 dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, use of languages like Basque, Catalan, and Galician was suppressed. But since Spain's Basque region voted for home rule in 1978, the Basque nationalist-led government has promoted the use of Basque.

Familiarity with the language, which bears no resemblance to Indo-European languages, is highest in rural areas. Linguists are still pursuing the mystery of Euskera's origins. Some think it could be connected to languages spoken by the Berbers, a caucasoid people of North Africa.


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