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  • Writer's pictureHargun Sachdev

Vocabulary is not the most important thing when learning a new language

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

Whenever I thought of learning any language, I immediately thought of learning the vocabulary. I suppose that’s because I always saw other people on and off screen learn a foreign language that way. You know like having 10,000 flash cards and slapping on sticky notes on items around your home with the foreign language words on them. I never doubted that that’s the way to begin learning a language and the core way to master it.

In fact, I came across a really cool statistic a few years ago on language learning which went something like if you learn the 1000 of the most commonly occurring words in a language they will make up for 85% of instances in that language. These numbers are arbitrary, my memory isn’t that perfect, but the percentage was about the same. However, along the same lines, here’s an interesting article you could read.

So when I began learning Korean, right after I learned Hangeul, I moved on to the vocabulary. It was fun initially when I learned the words for love, mom, good morning but then the wormwhole opened and I put all my energy in dealing with it. However, it never even crossed my mind that I would have to learn something other than the script and the vocabulary. Something that would prove to be more tricky. That something is *drum roll* grammar!

Let me make my case

Okay, so if I want to write this sentence in Korean,

The noodles yesterday night were delicious.

And I know the following vocabulary:

Noodles: 국수 Yesterday: 어제 Night: 밤 Delicious: 마시다

Do you think that’s sufficient to write that sentence? I wish!

But for that I also need to know:

  1. The sentence structure (which is Subject – Object – Verb as opposed to Subject – Verb – Object in English)

  2. Past tense

  3. Subject and object marking particles

  4. The dictionary form vs the conjugated form of adjectives

And all of that? That’s the grammar.

So had I only known the vocabulary I’d write:

국수 어제 밤 마시다. Noodles last night delicious.

But the sentence actually should be:

어젯밤의 국수는싰었어요. Last night the noodles were delicious.

As you can see, it’s not just the structure of the sentence but all these other changes that I have marked in bold that I need to know to form a seemingly simple sentence. I won’t go in depth of because this isn’t a Korean lesson. The point I am trying to make is that it’s funny I didn’t ever think of it and all that clouded my mind was vocabulary.

Grammar is the real beast

Now that I have actively been learning Korean for a year, I can assure you, after you are done with the absolute beginner phase, the rose-tinted glasses phase, what is the most important and tricky thing to master is grammar.

I believe that’s true with every language! It seems pretty obvious to me now but because I learned the other two languages I know as a child (English and Hindi) I never saw the learning pattern of them. Those languages just come to be inherently and I never sit to think about things like grammar or vocabulary and what I found tricky when learning.

Of course, vocabulary is important too, one without the other is pointless really. But I find it greatly amusing that before I really got into disciplined language learning, vocabulary was the only thing that clouded my mind.

What I find helpful

Reading and writing! I’ve realized that by watching Kdramas and listening to music, it’s easy to pick up vocabulary. But until I don’t write or read in Korean, I make no progress in grammar because I don’t even notice it.

What do I read? One source that has been extremely helpful and also super fun for me has been Talk To Me In Korean’s reading book. It has these 30 stories of one-paragraph each around different themes like birthday, bus, sleeping, cooking, etc.

I also find this Korean grammar points/key expressions master list handy by a tumblr account. It’s only once I review the key expressions either from my Korean books or such online resources can I notice the patterns in the sentences I read. As for writing, I am trying to write 3 to 5 line poems in Korean with the help of whatever I already know + Google translate.

There are so many amazing resources out there for learning Korean so I don’t want to make my blog posts about that. Instead I want to write about things I find helpful and the observations I make as I progress in my Korean learning journey. I think it would be cool to document that ^^


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