Only an debate like this one could pull me out of my book-writing cave to post my two cents! Actually, I’ve been meaning to write this one for awhile now as I continue to see both sides dive into mortal combat with each other over this very topic. Well, buckle up. This is my personal take on the Vocabulary vs. Grammar controversy.

What’s This About?

You may be thinking “Ok, what are we actually debating here?”. Well, the debate I’m going to address concerns two distinct camps:

Grammar in Language Learning1. The Grammar Giant – A Grammar Giant believes that vocabulary, although very important, is secondary to the grammar of the language. A Grammar Giant sees grammar as the “flow”, “the structure”, or even the “skeleton” of the language. Without grammar, as the Grammar Giant sees it, we are left babbling seemingly random words that, in many cases could be taken to mean different things in different contexts. This school of thought believes that communication can be clearer, quicker, and more to the point if one has a solid foundational understanding of grammar concepts even with a seemingly small vocabulary (even as low as 300-500 words).

Vocabulary in Language Learning2. The Vocab Virtuoso – A Vocab Virtuoso believes that grammar stands in the way of using the language. To a Vocab Virtuoso, the majority of your time should be spent studying vocabulary. Without vocabulary, as they see it, we basically are just left with math. These guys (and gals) believe that even if you aren’t correctly forming a sentence or conjugating a verb perfectly, your meaning will still be conveyed because of your vocabulary words. Many in this group seem to measure success by how many words they know.

So Who’s Right?

Woah! Not so fast guys. You didn’t think it would be as simple as me choosing sides did you? Of course, real life is never as simple as extremes, and this is no different. In fact, most people can be both sides of the debate, but most also fall into one camp more naturally than the other.

Obviously, grammar without vocabulary is no more an example of language than vocabulary without grammar.

An example:

Grammar only: Subject + Verb + Adverb + Preposition + Indirect object

Vocabulary only: “across run yard the I”

Of course neither example is a true example of functional language. Of course the Vocab Virtuoso among us could argue that the meaning of the vocab only example could be pieced together without too much trouble whereas the Grammar only example could never make sense. To which I offer the following additional example:

“You to go me want with”

Is it “You want to go with me” or “I want to go with you”? If you are assuming the former just because of the word “me” rather than “I”, you have just fallen into the trap set by the Grammar Giants. In this case, “I” and “me” are grammatical markers because they take a different form based on the function of the first person personal pronoun. Without any grammar, it would be impossible to determine who wants to go with whom.

It is this awesome symbiotic relationship between grammar and vocabulary that makes this discussion so much fun. It’s almost a chicken and egg type of scenario. So, obviously, the true answer must lie somewhere between the two extremes, right?

Between the Extremes

The truth is, grammar and vocabulary are both necessary to language. If either one were truly superfluous, that part would have been dropped years ago. Historically, living languages tend to become less complex grammatically as time goes on through slang, colloquialisms, and sometimes laziness. Now,I know you came looking for an answer about which team I’m on and to say “both” would be a major cop-out. So, I’m going to align myself.

My Team

If my level in a language is roughly A1-A2, I’m decidedly a Vocab Virtuoso. In the beginning of a language, I think that vocabulary size trumps grammar. I am still a believer in grammar and I will still study enough grammar at this stage to form correct sentences, albeit very simple ones. This is the stage where I really only learn to construct the most basic sentence structures. I spend most of my time studying vocabulary via flashcards, SRS, simple reading, and conversation practice.

If I sound like a baby at this stage, that’s ok because technically I am a baby in that language. In fact, sounding too grammatically advanced at this stage in language learning can cause speaking partners to vastly overestimate your proficiency which may lead to them using language (vocab & grammar structures) that could be far too advanced for your true level. If you cannot understand anything that your practice partner is saying to you, you won’t learn anything.

Once my level hits B1 and up, I tend to slide further and further into the Grammar Giant camp. It is at this stage that all the vocabulary you’ve been learning up to this point really starts to become useful. Each new sentence structure you learn gives your vocabulary exponentially more possible uses. To me it’s like finally plugging in the new computer. For months or years you’ve been building it, adding a new sound card here, a new video card there. You save up to buy the new HD monitor and put in all the RAM upgrades, but when you turn it on, that’s when the magic happens. Same with languages for me.

Additionally, there is one other factor that has been known to sway me from camp to camp besides CEFR levels. That is the question of “why am I learning this language?”. How does this affect my view on vocab vs. grammar?

If I am learning a language for a specific subset of communication (ie: Spanish for a job like as a Medical Assistant), I lean toward Grammar Giant. Now, I can hear some of you saying that it sounds contradictory to learn more grammar than vocab for a smaller subset of language usage. Why not learn more vocabulary and less grammar so that you can have an easier chance of being understood with all of your extra words? Two reasons:

1. The more words you know, the less usages you know for each word. The word “fly” in English has several meanings. It can mean to literally fly like a bird, to fly aboard an airplane, to run somewhere very quickly (“I flew home after I heard the news”), to find success like with a plan (“that will never fly”), and even an insect. If you learn the word “fly” in English, you may learn one of these meanings and hear it used in a different context and be totally confused. Fewer words, but more complete usages makes more sense to me in this case.

2. In smaller subsets of language usage, you will have higher frequency of certain words. These are the words I would concentrate on. If I’m learning Russian to speak with people and talk about general things, I would need a lot more vocabulary than if I were learning Russian specifically to give guided tours of the Russian Car Museum. Right? However, wouldn’t people expect me to sound more like I actually speak Russian if I’m giving a museum tour? That’s where the grammar focus comes from.

3. In language usage subsets, the need for clear, concise communication is often more necessary. Take for example the Spanish for a Medical Assistant. In this case, I would need to know exactly what is being communicated. the more vocabulary that gets in the way, the more potential for misunderstanding. 500 words and a very solid understanding of grammar will get you a long way if you are studying for a specific purpose apart from general knowledge.

My Final Position

So, there you have it! Depending on a couple of different factors, I could be a Grammar Giant or a Vocab Virtuoso. You may have been expecting a definitive answer on the Grammar vs Vocabulary debate, and I hope you found what you were looking for. Ultimately, I think both sides have valid points and hopefully both can just learn to get along. Because in the end, isn’t language really just about communication?

Are YOU a Grammar Giant or a Vocab Virtuoso? Answer in the comments!

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