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I recall attending a Latvian Independence Day celebration in Los Angeles.  As Estonia’s honorary consul in California I had a front row seat, visible to everyone in attendance.  The program lasted longer than expected – almost three hours.  Except for our introduction by the emcee, my brief remarks and the remarks of the Lithuanian honorary consul general, the entire program was in Latvian.  The principal speaker was from the Latvian Foreign Ministry.  He delivered what perhaps was an interesting speech – at least I think it may have been interesting based on intermittent translations whispered by the Latvian sitting next to me.

Because everyone could see me, I could not yawn, close my eyes or even shift my position too often, let alone glance at my smart phone.  Afterward, several people came and offered their sympathies.  However, since then significant Latvian events having potential appeal for persons not conversant in Latvian continue to be conducted in Latvian.
Los Angeles has one of the largest consular corps in the world.  During the course of a year I attend numerous national day celebrations.  How many of these events follow the Latvian model and conduct their programs in their native language?  Not the French.  Not the Germans.  Not the Japanese.  Neither do the Chinese, the Philippinos, the Brazilians, the Armenians, the Finns, or the Poles.  All of these events are conducted in English.  The list goes on, until it reaches the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian national day celebrations.
The Los Angeles Latvian and Lithuanian national day celebrations are consistently conducted almost exclusively in Latvian and Lithuanian.  The Estonian Vabariigi Aastapäev is celebrated predominantly in Estonian but with a nod to the few non-Estonian speakers in the audience.  Every five or six years the keynote speaker speaks in English.  In other years, the speaker is generally asked to provide a synopsis in English that is distributed to non-Estonian speakers in the audience.  Other remarks during the program are mostly in Estonian, sometimes followed by a restatement in English.
I wondered how other Estonian communities in America and Canada conduct their national day programs.  From the responses to my email enquiries it seems there are three variations:  entirely, or substantially entirely in Estonian; an Estonian - English hybrid; and entirely or substantially entirely in English.  Estonian is used most frequently followed by the hybrid and in a very few places, Independence Day programs are conducted entirely in English.
Immediately following World War II virtually all national day celebrations were conducted in Estonian.  The bulk of the audience was not comfortably conversant in English.  Later, nostalgia and a perceived need to maintain Estonian culture and language in the face of Russification within Estonia was the rationale for maintaining the tradition of conducting Independence Day programs in Estonian.
The reasons for all-Estonian programs no longer exist.  However, there are good reasons for conducting our programs in English, all of which can be summed up in one word, “communications.”
Today Independence Day celebrations have the potential to maintain the interest of second and third generation Estonians in Estonia, introduce Estonian culture and business to the broader American and Canadian communities and to exert political influence on behalf of Estonia as and when needed.  The “Estonian only” programs do nothing to enhance these potentials; the hybrid programs are of limited value. I once asked a Finnish consul who was being transferred to Egypt how she expected to communicate with members of the Cairo consular corps.  Her reply, “English.”  English is the de facto language of diplomacy.  It is the language of business.  It is the language of transportation.  Diplomats need to communicate.  Business people need to communicate.  Pilots and air traffic controllers need to communicate.  Why is it that so many of our Estonian societies insist on hibernating in a past age and refuse to communicate?
What can our national day celebrations communicate?  Pride in our Estonian roots, a demonstration of Estonian culture, and an awareness of what is happening within Estonia – these are all bullet points that come immediately to mind.  But, we already have this information.  It is our children and grandchildren, our neighbors, business people interested in expanding their markets and our political leaders we need to communicate with.  Independence Day is a wonderful opportunity to do so.  But, we don’t use that opportunity.
Why do we shut out the world around us?  Why do we deliberately make our events uninviting to people whom we want to and need to educate about Estonia?  What politician will come to an event where the language is unintelligible or if the politician does attend what is the message that is walked away with?  How many friends and neighbors have we disenfranchised from Estonian history and culture because of our insistence on conducting events in Estonian?  How many children have we done this to?  How many second and third gene-ration Estonians stay away from our functions because they don’t feel welcome because they can’t understand what is being said?
People who are not conversant in Estonian generally won’t come to events where they can’t understand what is being said.  Of course, even understandable programs don’t guarantee automatic attendance.  We also have to conduct attractive programs.  They need to consist of more than a (hopefully) lively and substantive keynote speaker and a few folk dances.  But, that is another essay for another time.    

Jaak Treiman


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