How to improve your language skills using vocabulary words
Welcome, aspiring polyglot! One of the age old debates amongst linguists and language enthusiasts around the world is whether vocabulary or grammar is ultimately more important when thinking about second language strategies. While both certainly have their place, it is my personal belief that vocabulary is far more important than grammar and in this post I will attempt to explain why. As always, everyone is unique and if vocabulary is something you struggle with finding the desire to work on, you are not alone. Lean into and maximize your strengths, that is the best way to minimize your weaknesses. That said, I am interested in your opinions and reasoning so if you disagree please leave a comment and let me know what you think!
Foreign language mastery
When you are getting started on a new language, most of the things you will be focused on are basic The reason behind this is that you will be using the basics all the time and only rarely will you need to access a more advanced lexicon. While mastery of the basics is important, without providing opportunities for growth momentum can easily be stifled. In fact, the most prevalent complaint about Duolingo tends to be that it focuses too much on repetition of the basics. Yes, repetition is vital for language learning success, however it is not the only thing that matters.
Having a large vocabulary allows you to express yourself in better and more precise ways. Often people find communication barriers as they attempt to practice their target language, but it is not always because they are saying things wrong nor does it mean that they are saying the wrong thing. Sometimes it simply comes down to not being precise enough in your speech. This problem transcends languages and often is noticeable even amongst native speaking populations. You should never settle for just being able to express yourself, you should always be pushing to learn new and improved ways to better express yourself.
Beyond the ability to express yourself more eloquently, you will also find that you are able to craft sentences in ways you may not have thought. When you have a limited vocabulary, you often find that there is only one way to say something when, in reality, there are dozens of ways to say the same thing and some are simply better than others. The larger your repertoire of vocabulary words the more likely it is that you will be able to say just about everything you want to say, even if it is not the most articulate possible way. More importantly, though, having a large vocabulary makes it less likely that you will end up confused by the things someone else is saying.
Context clues are going to be your best friend throughout the entirety of your language learning journey. They may just be the most valuable tools in your second language acquisition tool belt. Not only that, but by becoming proficient at understanding context you can develop communication strategies conducive to your long term success. By knowing the meaning of words well outside your current "level" you will see that your listening comprehension is immediately better. Being able to pick out words from different phrases and extracting the meaning based on the contexts is a powerful skill. Every time you add a new word into your vernacular you open up opportunities for future self evaluation.
By adding your new vocabulary into the comprehensible input you create an environment that facilitates your recall abilities. Most language students focus on the things that they were told are metrics of a good language learner in school. Now that there are no tests, the willingness to sound stupid and make mistakes, approaching second language acquisition in the same way that you approached first language acquisition, is more valuable than the ability to memorize and regurgitate information over a short period of time. At the end of the day, for many it breaks down to what will be the most consequential when it comes to making mistakes.
What happens when you mess up the grammar?
Though making mistakes is valuable, it is certainly not something you want to be doing indefinitely and so reducing the amount of basic mistakes you make up front can prove beneficial. However, many native speakers struggle with the grammar of their mother tongue decades into fluency. All this means for you is that no one will make a stink about your attempts. Very few people are actually capable of speaking without making mistakes and it is even worse when it comes to writing. That is why spending too much time obsessing over whether or not you are saying things perfectly is often a fool's errand.
Because native speaking people have had to spend time learning the language as well, they are likely to find your struggles endearing. Experiencing common trials is phenomenal for building bonds and there is little more universal than battling with language learning. Unfortunately, one thing you will simply have to get used to is having people laugh at you. Even when you are fluent you will not be safe from the ridicule or mocking that comes with putting yourself out there in front of people.
People will laugh at you, but if you are able to take a step back and laugh with them, you might just find that they are laughing because they understand the struggle, not because you are experiencing it. More importantly, though, when you inevitably master the concept, you will notice the silence, it is deafening. Slowly but surely you will find that the people who were mocking you for messing up concepts in a foreign language are only speaking to you in that language. That is usually when you can rest assured that your proficiency is high enough to interact with locals on a consistent basis.
The other advantage of getting something grammatically incorrect is, more often than not, the person you are speaking to will be able to fill in the blanks or make proper corrections to help you improve. This is not the case when it comes to vocabulary. While there are certainly things that can completely stump people, as long as you get the words correct most people can piece together how it should be said. Once you know that, you can practice saying it that way and work to develop a system that allows you to plug and play with more words in the same structure. On the other hand, when you get the words wrong, things can get out of hand quickly.
What happens when you get the vocabulary wrong
When you get grammar wrong, but use the correct words, figuring out the intent of what was said is easily enough. However, when you get the words wrong you can offend people, destroy relationships, and set yourself up for an uphill battle. One of the most prevalent mistakes that people come across when it comes to learning a romance language is attempting to translate "excited".
For example, in French
decided = decidé
invited = invité
inspiré = inspired
So with that in mind, it would be reasonable to assume that excité = excited. It does not. When you say "Je suis excité de faire votre connaissance" you are not saying, "I am excited to meet you". Instead you are saying, "I am horny to meet you", which is probably not what your intention was. Using the wrong word can result in complete misunderstandings which can be huge blows to the ego and ultimately delay language learning progress. Not only that, but when you struggle to find a word, people will also likely struggle to help you.
Grammar is important, but if you get the correct words most people will be able to surmise what you were trying to say. However, if you use the wrong words, and do not know the correct words, then you may find that people have a difficult time conversing with you. Unless you are able to provide ample context, most people will never be able to guess what you are trying to say, especially if they do not speak you native language.
Not only that, but there are far more words than there are grammar rules. Focusing on vocabulary early on is something that can make learning a new language enjoyable as it is easier to master new words than it is to master grammar. By placing focus on key words and their correct usage, you can make great strides irrespective of your individual learning style.
Ultimately, the most disheartening thing when learning foreign languages is hearing, "what" multiple times back to back. It is even worse when the other person just defaults to your native language because it is easier. Often it is enough to get people to think twice the next time they want to speak. By learning phrases and trying to develop your vocabulary you will find you are better at understanding what people are saying to you and, as a result of this, you are better at expressing yourself. Try it and see for yourself!
Putting the puzzle together
While vocabulary is important and, in my opinion, more important, you cannot learn a language without understanding the grammar. Drilling conjugation is not something most people find enjoyable, but you need to at least understand what you are reading and studying grammar can connect some dots. There are parts of grammar that many native speakers never even touch, but much of it is going to be helpful.
If you enjoy grammar, then you should not forget about it entirely just because I said that vocabulary is more important. You should always be leaning into your strengths and if grammar rules and flashcards are the way you do things best, then that is how you should do things. It just does not work for everyone. What does work is practice.
Though Duolingo's repetition can be a bit overbearing, repetition is vital to language acquisition. You need to be getting exposure to your target language for several hours every day if you want to become conversational. You need to be seeking out opportunities to speak and you need to be writing and doing your best to go back and improve upon your past works, irrespective of how bad they are. Repetition is key, whether you believe vocabulary or grammar is more important.
There are many ways to approach learning a language and while public education tends to drill conjugation and lean into memory regurgitation, that is not something I think works very well. That is why vocabulary is most important. The more words you understand the more you can do. You can read articles about musicians, you can visit museums and read the exhibits in the language in which they were written, you can talk to people who speak the language natively and learn something from them in the process. You can make countless mistakes with the grammar and find yourself in the good graces of people who also often struggle with the grammar of their native language.