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The most important phrase to learn in any language

Jeremy Ginsburg

When you’re learning a new language, vocabulary plays a big role. After all, with out words, how do you communicate?

The very first words you usually learn in a language are the basic greetings. Hello, how are you, thank you, goodbye, see you again, etc.

But, then what?

What’s next? 

Do you start learning the days of the week? Maybe start with practical vocabulary such as foods and drinks? Do you learn how to introduce yourself?

These are all practical phrases to learn. But, there’s one phrase that is more important than the rest. It can help you learn more and more vocabulary than any textbook, teacher, or online resource.

It can turn strangers into your teachers. It can help you learn even more vocabulary than you can imagine. It can save you a lot of time and energy.

Before I spill the beans, I want to tell you a short story.

When I was in high school, I studied French. I was a pretty good student. I scored in the 80s or higher on exams. I participated when I could. I worked pretty hard.

But, after five years of studying, I still felt like I couldn’t really speak French.

I could write in French.

I could read French.

I knew the difference between passé compose and imparfait.

But, I couldn’t speak it confidently.

As far as vocabulary, I knew very little. I would cram all my studying in right before the exams, but then forget the words the next week, or even day!

A few years later, I learned a language called Twi while I was studying abroad in Ghana, West Africa.

Twi is one of the many tribal languages in Ghana. It’s a spoken language. It has an alphabet (that is very similar to the English alphabet), but most Ghanaians do not know how to write it. As you can guess, there were not many resources to learn Twi, either.

That meant, I had to learn vocabulary in a completely different manner than I did when I studied French.

I took classes twice a week, but the book that we used was the beginner level.

After I knew most of the book, I wasn’t sure how to keep learning.

I couldn’t just look up the word on Google translate.

I had no teacher that could feed me a list of useful vocabulary words.

I realized that if new words weren’t coming to me, I had to seek them out myself.

Instead of a list of words and pictures, I was forced to learn vocabulary through context and real life situations.

I started asking more questions. I started pointing at things, hoping people would say the word in Twi, but often, they would just say the word in English, or they told me the price, because they assumed I wanted to buy it.

Then I learned the most important phrase, and everything changed.

That phrase was: “3y3 d3n” which means, "What is this?

Once I could ask about things, my vocabulary grew fast than ever. Faster than when I had a teacher, faster than it grew in French.


I was being active about it. Instead of trying to memorize the vocabulary words given to me because they were going to be on an exam, I began seeking out the words that I wanted to know.

I began learning words as they became relevant.

For example, on a French test, I had to memorize all the fruits. This was stressful.

But in Ghana, I only cared about the fruits that I wanted to eat!

Our brains aren’t wired to memorize random fruits that we never eat. It’s tough for our brains to recall the scientific words for animals we once learned in middle school.  We don’t use them, so our brain forgets them.

If I didn’t know a word, I would ask (in Twi), “what is this”, or, even better, “how do you say this in Twi”?

I would only ask about words I wanted to know, and I only wanted to know words that pertained to my life!

Then, because these words were relevant and practical to my life, I ended up remembering them, too.

Why? Because the words were practical!

Once I started asking this question, my life became so much easier.

                                                        in my 5 months in ghana, I also I learned how to play the Djembe!

Sure, I couldn’t remember all the vocabulary the first (or second or third!) time I heard it, and I still had a lot of work to do on the pronunciation side, but I was now one simple question away from learning anything!

Even better, if the people I was talking to didn’t speak English, I could just point and say, “What is this”.

It was easier when they spoke English, and I could ask, “how do you say ____ in Twi”, but it wasn’t necessary.

It made my learning experience more fun, and I also got to meet a lot more people because of it.

And, most of the people I encountered got a kick out of my attempt at learning the local language. Especially since Ghanaians speak English.

You may be thinking, “But, what if I’m too nervous to ask?”

“What if people don’t want to help me?”

“What if I’m not in an area where there are speakers of my target language?”

These are practical problems, but they’re all easy to conquer. So easy that it makes me want to dance!


Don't worry, I’ll cover them in further blog posts...

For now, I want you all to do me and yourself a quick favor.

First, I want you to learn how to say, “what is this”, or “how do you say (word you want to learn) in (your target language). If you are feeling motivated, learn both!

Next, I want you to leave a comment both telling me what the phrase is, and what language it is.

If you can’t find it in your target language, leave a comment or shoot me an e-mail and I promise I’ll find it for you!

Keep up your language learning appetite!

Jeremy Ginsburg

The VietNomad