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What is more important in learning Korean: Grammar or Vocabulary

Grammar vs Vocabulary debate is as old as the field of language education itself. There has always been a fierce debate among language researchers over what is more important in learning a foreign language- Grammar or Vocabulary? And there has come no proved conclusions yet.

Recently I have been reading a few papers and books on this issue and I found this topic very interesting. Which one of Grammar and Vocabulary is more important as far as the success or failure in Korean language learning in general and TOPIK test in particular? Keith Folse and Steve Kaufmann are some of the leading researchers who advocate the importance of vocabulary over grammar. In one of his famous articles ‘Vocabulary Myths’ Folse gives an example from his personal life to explain how important vocabulary is.

The incident happened when he was in Japan and he went to a small shop to buy some flour. He knew all the grammar patterns of Japanese to say sentences like ‘I need flour’, ‘where can I find flour’, ‘Please give me a packet of flour’ etc. but he didn’t know the exact Japanese word for flour. And all his efforts to explain the shopkeeper what he wanted proved to be useless and finally he wasn’t able to buy flour.

If I put my personal opinion, Grammar is definitely the backbone of a language and without knowing it one can’t communication efficiently but Vocabulary is something without which you can not communicate at all, leave alone efficient communication. You need words to speak; you need words to listen and understand.

If you don’t know grammar you may sound foolish when speaking but you can convey the necessary information. The kids communicate mostly through words only for the first 2-3 years. According to Steve Kaufmann, Grammar is something that you can learn automatically with time by listening and speaking and keep correcting yourself. He goes one step further to say that Grammar rules slow down our language learning.
If we see in the context of Korean language, vocabulary is really important. You not only need a good stock of words and also their correct usage in different contexts. I remember an embarrassing episode when I was in the first year of my Korean language learning in India. There was a group of Korean university students visiting our school and during a discussion session I asked a question that was something like ‘Is there any significant difference in the way the old and young Koreans think about India’. The word I used for ‘old’ was ‘늙은’ made from the verb ‘늙다’ which I had memorized just a few days back. Many Koreans including my teachers couldn’t control their laughter. I had no idea what happened. i was so sure about all the grammar patterns and words I had used. One of my teachers explained to me that ‘늙은 사람들’ was not the appropriate expression there and I should have used ‘나이 많은 분들’. I already knew this expression but I just wanted to use the brand new word I had learned. Most of you must have got into a situation at some point of time where you used a word which, technically, had the right meaning but was wrong in that context.

Even in the TOPIK test, vocabulary plays the most important role in your success. I have seen people, who speak fluent Korean in everyday situations, fail in the TOPIK test just due to weak vocabulary.

What is your opinion? What do you think is more important between grammar and vocabulary as far as learning Korean is concerned? Please share if you have any interesting episode about incorrect use of a word?


DECEMBER 28, 2016 WRITTEN BY SATISH CHANDRA SATYARTHI