I have a confession.

Although I am English and speak English, I didn’t understand much of my own language until I hit my early twenties. I got a reasonable grade when I took my English exam at school. Grade C is OK. It’s more than enough to get you by in almost any situation. But if you had asked me to explain what a proper noun or a metaphor was, I couldn’t have.

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

Albert Einstein

It wasn’t until I went to Prague that I truly began to understand my mother tongue. I was doing well working for Coca-Cola but I knew it wasn’t my calling so I upped and left. A change of scenery would do me good. So I went to another country to learn how to teach English as a foreign language. The irony of moving abroad to learn about my own language was not lost on me, I am English after all. If I didn’t get irony, I would have to tear up my passport.

Those six weeks were probably some of the most intense of my life. It was a shock to discover how little I knew about my own language and how poorly I could explain it. I felt humbled by anyone who could already speak it as their second language.

‘Two languages in one brain? No one can live at that speed!”

Eddie Izzard

I was scared too. There I was, an Englishman with a vocabulary of a hundred thousand words but who couldn’t articulate very well what the hell they meant, either to to myself or anyone else. I was on a crash course to learn how to teach something I barely understood and was sure I would do more crashing than coursing.

But I didn’t.

In fact, I passed. Don’t ask me how. And what I learned made a profound difference to how I perceive and describe myself, others and this thing called life. Perhaps it changed me because I wasn’t expecting it to or didn’t realise just how powerful language is.

I might even go as far to say, it is the very reason for the success of the human race. At the moment one cavewoman could say to the next cavewoman, “Oi, watch out, there’s a tiger behind that tree!” the art of cooperation (and survival) was born. For a species as physically weak as ours, that was a defining moment in our evolution.

No turning back

What I learned in Prague had a profound effect on me and I wanted to share it with you. Maybe it won’t have the same effect but who knows, maybe it will.

So if you don’t care to quit your day job just yet and jet off to Prague to do a TEFL course, here are the three words I think you should understand more deeply than you might. The three words that the English language is centered on, and without which it would fall apart. Use them wisely.

As Ben Parker – Spider-Man’s uncle – once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

To Be

The verb to be gives us our existence and identity.

  • “I am dead.”
  • “You are alive.”
  • “We are survivors.”

It also gives us a sense of time, place, movement and intention.

  • “She was born in 1979.”
  • “You are here.”
  • “They are leaving.”
  • “I will be there for you.”

It gives us our emotions and descriptions:

  • “He is angry.”
  • “We are happy.”
  • “I am hopeful.”
  • “She is intelligent.”
  • “It is shocking.”

The verb to be also helps us do other things:

  • “We are going on holiday.”
  • “They were having a crisis.”
  • “She is giving a speech.”

To Have

Welcome to the world of possession. Have gives us our sense of ownership:

  • “We have the right to a fair hearing!”
  • “I don’t have anything left to sell.”
  • “You have a chance at the big time.”

Like to be, to have also helps us do other things when it’s used with another word: it confirms something has happened, but without needing to know when.

  • “You have moved my cheese.”
  • “They have given up the search.”
  • “We have scored a great victory against our enemies.”

And “to have to” gives us compulsion:

  • “She has to do it today, otherwise she’ll never do it.”
  • “He has to see her again.”
  • “We had to leave.”

To Do

This is where the action is: we use do to command people.

  • “Do it now!”
  • “Don’t give up!”

We also use it to confirm or deny things:

  • “We didn’t have a chance to finish the game because the light faded.”
  • “They do meet up occasionally.”
  • “I certainly did not!”

And we use it to save ourselves from the curse of repetition:

  • “Did he do his presentation?”
  • “Yes he did (do his presentation).”

What next?

This is just a taste of what these three words have done for us over the centuries, what the do for us each day and what they will do for us in the coming years. They do have other uses of course, but hopefully this has given you an idea of just how powerful they already are.

As for the next three?

How about make, get and can.