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What does that mean?

I have been consistently a very poor student of foreign languages. In fact, I met my wife, a French major, as a deliberate scheme to enhance my (f)ailing grades in conversational French.

To test further my lack of acumen in foreign languages, my college friend Keith suggested we apply for a fellowship that would take us to rural Japan for a full year following graduation. Keith was fluent in Japanese. To the best of my knowledge, I believed Japan to be located somewhere in Asia. We both were awarded the fellowship.

That which ensued can only be characterized as one of the lowest periods of my life; I was miserable. After about five months, I still could not get by in basic Japanese. I studied language books, listened to tapes and practiced with the very patient Japanese who surrounded me– all to no avail.

Finally, one day I happened upon the most magically learning phrase. In Japanese, “Imi wa nan desu ka?”
Translated: What does that mean?

Within three weeks, armed with “Imi wa nan desu ka?,” I went from completely lost to conversationally proficient by simply asking people to explain what they were saying. My learning approach went from conquering nouns and verbs via rote learning to understanding the language and communication of real people and relevant culture by listening and asking this simple question.

Fast forward 30 years: I just began a new quarter of teaching financial accounting, the language of business, to 30 liberal arts college students. My students are not accounting majors; they are biology, sociology, psychology, economics and English majors. For my students, it probably is just another class with problems, quizzes and midterms. But from my perspective, I am looking into the faces of the future leaders of business, medicine, law, religion, and just important homeless shelters, PTOs and little leagues. They will be most effective if they can communicate in the financial language common to all organizations. And learning that language and being effective as organizational leaders simply depend on mastering one question, the final exam question:

Imi wa nan desu ka?

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