Grammar or Vocabulary – what’s more important?

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So what do you think? Grammar or vocabulary?

Which one is more important? Are they as important as each other?

Let me ask you another question.

When was the last time you went to a foreign country where you did not know the language very well.

Did you use a dictionary so people would understand you, or a grammar book?

Or did you use a translator?

If you used a translator, which words do you think you remember best from those translations - the grammary words (I just made that word up!!) or the vocabulary words?

I am willing to bet all my chickens (and I have 32 chickens!) that you remember the vocabulary and not the grammar and that you used a dictionary and NOT a grammar book.

OK, she's crazy!

But wait! Before you decide I'm crazy and you stop reading, hear me out.

​You're right, they are both important. And I LOVE grammar. I annoy my friends by correcting their grammar all the time. You wouldn't believe the mistakes that native English speakers make when they write and speak. I sometimes want to shout at them, 'My students can write more correct English than you!'

But that would not make me many friends, would it?

So, what about vocabulary then? Do you have a point Emma?

Yes, I do, and it is this.

Without vocabulary you are mute. (silent, unable to speak)

Without words nobody can understand you. Even if you have perfect grammar structures, you won't be able to communicate unless you have words to add to that structure. Think about this scenario. You are in a foreign country and you want to go to the beach. You know how to ask 'Where is the...' with perfect grammar. But what if you don't know the word 'beach'?

Answer? You won't be going to the beach!

OK, maybe not completely crazy.

Now I know that was a simple example, but you get the idea. No words, no communication.

If you know the word 'Beach' in your chosen foreign language, then you can stop someone and say (with raised shoulders and a rising 'questioning' intonation) 'Beach?'. The chances are they will understand you are looking for the beach.

OK, so now what? You stop learning grammar and just learn words? Well, ... no. And yes.

Stop worrying so much about grammar. In English you will probably have learnt a good foundation of grammar after about 2 years of studying (that is going from beginner to pre-intermediate). Now ask yourself WHY you are learning English. Is it to be able to communicate with people in English? I really hope this is the answer because that is why I and most teachers started teaching - to help people learn to speak our language - to communicate with other people. If so, then you need vocabulary.

Do you need English for your job? Then you will need vocabulary to do your job.

Do you want to move to an English-speaking country and you need to pass an exam to do that? OK, you will need some advanced grammar to pass the exam, but what about when you get to your new country? How are you going to socialise with people? Being able to write a letter of complaint or an essay on globalisation or speak for 2 minutes on a gift you once bought using perfect grammar are not going to be much help to you if you are just trying to meet people and make friends, or find your local supermarket, or take your child to the doctor.

Do you struggle to remember new words?


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Fun and practical activities to do to start building up your word knowledge.

But learning and REMEMBERING new words is really hard! I know, I live in Romania and I try to remember new words all the time, and it is difficult. I find that unless I use the words straight away, I forget them straight away.

So what do I do?

Well, I have a few techniques that work for me. I find patterns in words. If I can fit a word into a pattern that I already know, it helps me to remember it.

E.g. words that end in -ise   familiarise, realise, socalise etc.

I look for word families so that I learn several words at the same time.

E.g. a house, to house someone, housing, a housing estate.

I like the way words sound and they sometimes remind me of something else, and that helps me to remember them.

E.g. mouse sounds like house. A mouse lived in a house.

I'm a visual person - I learn by seeing. So I make pictures with the words, or write them out in funny ways. Mind maps are great things for building and remembering new words.

Here is my mind map for The Environment:

Notice the colours? They help you to remember too.

You can group the words in any way you want. You could put all positive words and phrases on the left and all the negative ones on the right.​ You could focus only on nouns and adjectives, or think about which adverbs could go with the verbs?

Hey! I can see some words that go together.

Yeah! They're called collocations. In English, words often come along with other words in groups. You need both or all of them to really be able to use the word. Learn new words is these collocational groups.

E.g. fossil fuels, pollute the environment, recycle rubbish

If you learn the collocations, you will be able to use the words properly. Another common example is with the verbs do and make.

We say do the washing up, do homework, do work, do a test, do exercise, do the shopping, do the accounts, do nothing ...

But we say make a mess, make your bed, make a decision, make a choice, make a cake​, make dinner, make an excuse ...

There are HUNDREDS of examples like this. Have you ever thought it is weird that in many languages you 'make a photo' but in English you 'TAKE a photo'? Take it where?

So, any final words of wisdom?

The more you play with the language and new words, look for patterns, compare it to your language, find similarities and weird differences the easier it will be to remember the words.

You will never really learn a language by just making lists of vocabulary. DO SOMETHING with the words. PLAY!

And stop worrying about your GRAMMAR!​


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