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Foreign Language Grammar vs. Vocabulary: What’s More Important?


When learning a foreign language for whatever reason, mistakes are going to be made. Which of those are worse – grammar or vocabulary? And which is more important to learn, initially?


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Grammar’s Role in Speaking a Foreign Language

Grammar is an important aspect of speaking a foreign language. Language is a system that is defined by culture and usage. Grammar attempts to organize that system into a coherent structured format that you can use. It is vital in differentiating tenses when speaking a foreign language. It separates the meanings of the words and forms them into a structured and understandable format.

In English, a grammatical norm is that the verb ‘to have’ is conjugated: I have, you have, we have, and they have. Only the third person singular is different: he/she/it has. This form of grammar conveys the perception of how something else can belong to something – a very important distinction when trying to speak a foreign language in a grammatically correct manner.

But are these vital little pieces of language more important than vocabulary?

A Working Vocabulary Is the Best Place to Start

An extensive foreign vocabulary, when new to a language, is usually much easier to learn at first than foreign grammar.  A working vocabulary is invaluable in being able to successfully transfer the right perceptions of your translated words. When one gets more comfortable with the language they are learning, the complexities of using proper grammar will eventually become clearer and easier to comprehend over time.

Translating Your Vocabulary


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A cross-language dictionary will give you the approximate translation of a word. But in order to properly transfer the intended meaning of the word in a sentence, a varied and appropriate vocabulary is going to be vital.

Translation is the transfer of a word’s meaning, from one language to another. What translating is not, is transferring just the equivalent of a word from one language to another. This is where a wide-range foreign vocabulary comes in handy when speaking a foreign language. Vocabulary defines the specifics of what you are trying to say in another language.

The Many Words for a “Mountain”

It is easy to translate the word “mountain,” but mountains, although common cultural denominators, all have individual culturally perceived meanings to the region’s inhabitants. These perceptions are based on how big or small a mountain is, whether it is capped with snow, covered with or just dotted with trees, or a dry and desolate place in the desert.

All these factors above depend on the location of the mountain. So, the true perception of a mountain is not easily translated without a varied useful vocabulary. Your vocabulary properly explains the type of mountain involved. Frozen mountain, forested mountain, sparse mountain, desolate mountain, all define the mountain by using a proper vocabulary. But why does this intricate knowledge of vocabularies matter? On a basic level, it could mean avoiding…

Vocabulary Embarrassments

Vocabulary errors can be very embarrassing, especially if the speaker mixes up a word that sounds the same, but in reality, means something drastically different. One embarrassing example of a vocabulary DOH! is the German word Durchwahl for “extension.” However, one simple misstep by saying Durchfall instead, and the word “extension” just turned into “diarrhea.”

Tricky Vocabulary Translation Examples:


  • French: The single word ‘shallow’ becomes two words in French, ‘peu profound.’ A ‘peck from a bird in English turns into many words in French, Donner de coupe de la bec (“Attack with the front of the beak.”). This type of multiple-word translation into one single word in English can be very confusing when speaking a foreign language.
  • Spanish: The English ‘insight’ transfers over to ‘a la vista,’ literally meaning, ‘to view,’ which certainly does not convey the English deeper meanings involved of having ‘insight’ into something.
  • German: If you are trying to explain where you ‘put’ something in German, setzen, meaning “to set,” is the closest translation of the word.  The simple variation of the two words can be easily worked with, as long as the subtle differences between the two words are also properly noted. (i.e. putting something away, as opposed to setting it on something).

In conclusion, initially, a strong working knowledge of vocabulary is an important part of learning a new, foreign language. The grammar, while equally as important, can (and should) be tackled at a later stage. Both of these vital parts of language can be easily learned with the help of a top language instructor. The Listen & Learn team can help you reach your foreign language goals. Contact us for more information on different languages, and about the language courses available in your area.

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