Grammar,  Language,  Vocabulary

Grammar vs. Vocab – Which comes first?

Recently, I started a thread on a language learning forum and asked the forum Grammar Cartoonmembers the simple question “Is vocabulary really necessary early on?” I posed this question in all sincerity based on one simple assumption: Vocabulary comes over time whether I like it or not, so wouldn’t a focus on grammar be a better emphasis in the early stages of language learning? Specifically, I thought it better to focus on such things as…

– Verbs (past present and future tenses, participles, etc.)
– Pronouns
– Articles/Cases (including gender, if necessary)
– Possessives
– Little words like of, for, and, by, with, which, this, that, these, those, etc.
– Question words (who, what, where, when, why, how)
– The phrases “How do you say ____?” and “What does _____ mean?”
– Sentence structure (i.e. where the subject, verb, and object go)

Vocab WordsMany of the responses I received to this post confirmed my thoughts, while others surprised me by proposing vocabulary as the more important place to start when learning a new language. In a nutshell, this opposing view says that you can actually learn grammar over time by learning phrases of vocabulary – not just individual words. This makes a lot of sense; if, for example, I learn to say “I understand it” in Spanish (“lo entiendo”), I will be able to see that the pronoun “lo” can actually come before the verb, whereas in English it comes after. This is more of a “learn by intuition” approach than an explicit study of grammar principles.

This was a valuable insight by a fellow forum member that really emphasized the process of language learning more than any specific method. There are some important principles involved here. The first is that you really need to be paying attention while studying a language. Duh, right? But honestly, there is a big difference between the quality of attention from a person who studies a vocabulary word and is able to remember it, and a person who studies a vocabulary phrase, remembers the word(s), and extracts grammar principles in the process.

The second valuable concept is that either method is completely acceptable as long as you exert a serious level of attention while learning. The grammar-first approach is probably the easier of the two for complete novices, simply because it takes a keen eye to extract grammar principles from vocabulary phrases, while studying grammar will almost force you to learn new vocabulary in the process.

But again, either way works as long as you know what you’re getting yourself into. It seems to simply be a preference of “learn by rules” vs “learn by intuition.” Both can be effective, depending on how you prefer to learn.

Have an experience with either approach? Fill out a comment below and let us know what’s worked for you!

I love tinkering with technologies. In the evenings, I build websites around some of my crazier ideas. During the day I work at Amazon. My amazing wife homeschools our 6 awesome kids, and right now we're doing it all in Europe.

One Comment

  • Fasulye

    In the beginning of learning a language should you focus more on grammar or on vocabulary learning?

    First every language learner is different and should find out for himself/herself which which approach to prefer.

    I personally can’t start learning a new language without having grammar explications right from the beginning. I always use textbooks and workbooks and I learn the grammar from them. Building up the vocabulary is as well very essentialfor me. So in fact I do both right from the beginning, but without a grammar structure in my head my vocabulary knowledge would not fit in.


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