The first meeting of the XXI Estonian American National Council was historic. Its newly elected members decided to adopt English as the primary language for its discussions. The decision was not easily come by, but once reached permitted the two-day session to flow smoothly.
After the formalities of opening the meeting were carried out in Estonian, new member Matti Prima from Lakewood asked about the use of English and offered a motion that English be adopted as the official language of the meeting. Active discussion about the change followed, in which many members participated. West Coast members Otsmaa and Kalm emphasized in their remarks that a change need not affect basic principles, but would be practical in allowing the maximum possible participation by all members in discussion of ERKÜ issues.
After such discussion, the motion was defeated over a visible and vocal minority that had supported it. President Marju Rink-Abel then offered a substitute motion to use English as the primary language with the possibility of using Estonian as desired. This practical approach was passed by a show of hands.
ERKÜ has had a sixty-year history of using the Estonian language in its meetings. For some years the protocol had been to let members speak in English at their discretion, but most business has been transacted in Estonian. This year the protocol was reversed with most members speaking in English and a few continuing in Estonian.
In the course of the meeting, the new Estonian ambassador Eerik Marmei was introduced, who presented a thoughtful and complete analysis of current political issues in Estonian. Members had a good opportunity to get acquainted with the new ambassador. Based on later corridor conversations, it seemed that some part of the erudite presentation was lost to unpracticed ears. The occasional comment was heard that the ambassador could have followed the example of his president in representing his country in English.
The decision of the National Council will no doubt attract criticism from some quarters where the use of the Estonian language is considered sacred. The critics should remember that the Council represents all Estonian-Americans, whose number exceeds 25,000, not just the small community that has remained true to the mother tongue (which based on Vaba Eesti Sõna subscriber data numbers a couple of thousand).
It should also not be assumed that the decision to change the use of language at meetings will somehow change National Council objectives in supporting Estonian language, culture or youth work. The Council has for years stood steadfastly behind principles for supporting youth development and will surely do so in the future. At Saturday’s dinner, outstanding organization awards were presented to Nordic Press, the Estonian Boy Scouts and the Estonian Girl Guides.
In the opinion of this writer, the use of English opened the opportunity for more confident participation by many members. Many of us employ our mother tongue conversationally, but have limitations when faced with more technical language issues. Observing what happened, it was clear that the pace of the meeting was enhanced and discussion livelier than at other recent meetings. There is no need to worry that the decision will negatively impact our activities or mission. If anything, it will bring more enthusiasm to the solution of issues faced!