You have limited time to learn your target language. How should you spend it?
For beginners and advanced learners, we usually recommend focusing on vocabulary. Read on to find out why, or move on to the video below for a replay of our webinar that explains why vocabulary matters more than you think.
How is vocabulary related to competence?
We don’t underestimate the importance of grammar, but rather the study1,2,3 have shown that of all the factors that contribute to language proficiency, vocabulary size is by far the most important factor.
The data consistently show that increasingly larger vocabulary is associated with higher and higher levels of competence4th.
Why focus on vocabulary?
1. The vocabulary can be “divided”.
Did you know that your brain processes languages using two different storage systems? Declarative memory learns facts: words, phrases, numbers, etc. Procedural memory learns skills such as applying a grammar rule.
Much of what was originally thought to be processed by procedural memory is actually declarative. For example, a phrase like “I don’t know” has traditionally been viewed as an exercise in grammar – conjugating “knowledge”, negating “not”, etc. But this is actually processed declaratively as a “block”. The more of these “chunks” you know, the less time you need to process and produce fluent language.
Learners with a large vocabulary can draw from these preconstructed pieces and combine them into longer, more “native” sentences.
2. Vocabulary actually helps You have mastered various grammatical functions!
When you think of grammar, you probably think of things like verb conjugations. A sufficiently large and carefully compiled vocabulary supports learning these types of Regulate grammar5 and becomes the basis on which grammar rules can be applied in new and imaginative ways6th.
We encourage you to create a sentence in the past tense without using nouns, adjectives or objects. 😉
Vocabulary as an investment in grammar goes beyond the obvious need to use words in examples.
Look at semantics and pragmatics. These two grammar constraints are learned through vocabulary and fully processing the meaning of words. The semantics has to do with the actual definition of a word or text. Pragmatics refers to how words are used in a practical sense or in context.
For example, if someone said to you, “Could you crack the window?” Semantically, you know that “cracking” means breaking, but pragmatically you know to open the window.
In order to understand the sentence, the many meanings of individual vocabulary and the idiomatic expression must be known and carefully studied.
3. The vocabulary also helps with all four skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing).
Have you ever listened to someone speak and settled on a single word and flipped it in your head to miss the next 30 seconds of conversation?
Vocabulary can fill these gaps and make it easier to hear, speak, read or write in the target language.
It also gives your brain the ability to perceive other aspects of language that are important to language proficiency – cultural references, correct pronunciation, and application of grammar patterns (as you now know).
Where does the grammar fit in?
Communication is ultimately about exchanging ideas. You don’t have to be local to successfully express an idea. Do you need medical help? That single word “hospital” or “doctor” will likely get you what you need.
However, if your goal is to have a personal or professional life in the language and to express your ideas eloquently, grammar is a must.
Look for grammar patterns as you learn vocabulary! That way, you’ve learned grammar in your native language by seeing it in context and inferring the grammar rules. Then you can use these rules and patterns in the classroom or when communicating with your friends or colleagues. (But that’s a topic for another day!)
Want to learn more about a vocabulary-first approach to language learning? Watch a rerun of our webinar on the subject!
1 Alderson, JC (2005). Diagnosing foreign language skills. London: continuum.
2 Laufer, B. (1992). How much lexicon is necessary for reading comprehension? In H. Bejoint & amp; P. Arnaud (Ed.), Vocabulary and applied linguistics (Pp. 126-132). London: Macmillan.
3 Stæhr, LS (2008). Vocabulary size and listening, reading and writing skills. Language learning journal, 36(2), 139-13. 152.
4th Milton, J. (2010) Measuring the Contribution of Vocabulary to Mastery of the Four Skills.
5 Nation, ISP (2001) Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, 336.
6th Lewis, M. (2002) Implementing the Lexical Approach: Translating Theory into Practice.