Written by Dyami Millarson
I believe that being moral and practical are one and the same thing. Old philosophical morals usually have some underlying practical reason why they were transmitted from one generation to another. Philosophy is not the unrealistic pondering that people imagine, but it is the practical way of thinking that generations past adopted from their ancestors and transmitted to their offspring. In the context of language-learning, I am particularly interested in one of those basic and traditional moral values found in so many cultures around the globe: Respecting the elderly.
My father always taught me this moral value: “As a parent, I want to learn from my children. This seems inverted morality, but it is based on the principle that one should do to others what one wants done to oneself. I want that my children learn from me, but that means I should first think about what I am going to offer them. The inevitable conclusion is that I must be motivated to learn myself; I cannot expect them to adopt a value that I do not model. So if I sincerely show that I want to learn from my children, my children will feel the same desire to learn from me. It is a mutual exchange.”
The aforementioned insight is the basis of the Millarson family philosophy, which I have always sought to follow in my years of experience as an online language tutor. I told my students explicitly from the start of our contact that I want to learn from them and that I hope they will learn from me. This insight is what helped me accumulate a wealth of knowledge very fast and to increase my understanding of languages; the tireless pursuit of morality in a modern world which considers morality obsolete is the only plausible explanation for this highly efficient learning process. An ever-evolving moral approach to teaching characterised my online teaching style. I saw language-learning as a social, moral, philosophical and psychological pursuit.
My approach to language-learning has paved the way for the realisation that elderly have a vital role to play in saving languages and the acquisition of fluency. It is a daunting task to save endangered languages, even with my years of language-learning experience. Due to my tireless quest to acquire fluency and to become “one of the best speakers” of any language that I study, I realised that the best way to learn and save minority languages is to learn from the elderly. This learning process is naturally initiated by first contact and building a relationship. First impressions matter because the elderly need to know and see my motivation immediately. My conventional wisdom is that showing skill is the best way to show motivation, and when the elderly are convinced of my competence to learn languages fast based on the hard work of perseverance, they become more motivated themselves to help my efforts. The ‘easiest’ way to persuade people is not unironically the hard work you show.
I am very explicit to the elderly speakers themselves about my intention to learn from them and “become one of the best speakers like them”. The elderly feel genuinely flattered by my view that they are the best speakers and that I want to become one of their equals through hard work. This is about recognition. The elderly feel that my respect is sincere and that I see them as the ultimate authorities on their languages, which gives them the pleasure of their old age being seen as useful for a higher goal. It is an opportunity that the elderly missed due to fact their own descendants may have refused, exhibited suspicion towards or looked down on the use of such language. The problems for transmission arose from the fact that people were taught (too often by strict school teachers) that local languages or ‘mere dialects’ would be bad for their language-learning of ‘more important languages’ instead of being an asset to the human multilingual skill. Speaking local languages does, however, contribute to the human multilingual talent.