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Don’t Sweat the Grammar Posted by on Jul 27, 2010 in Language Learning

Don’t get us wrong; grammar is important! But when you first start learning a language, you should focus on acquiring vocabulary. Because sometimes, just knowing a single word in a language can make all the difference. In his book Vocabulary Myths, Keith Folse tells a story about not knowing the right word.

Having just moved to a rural town in Japan to teach English, Folse wanted to buy some flour. He’d learned the Japanese sentence pattern “Sumimasen, ____ -wa doko desu ka?” or “Excuse me, where is the ____?” and confidently set out on his mission to the local supermarket.

Yet, even with this basic grammar, he was lacking the necessary knowledge: he did not know the word for flour. After wandering the store unable to locate any identifiable bags of flour, he spied one of his students outside. He ran outside and called out, “How do you say flour in Japanese?” Unfortunately his student replied “Hana” – the word for flower, instead of komugi—the word for flour.

After being presented with chrysanthemums in the produce section, Folse left the store without purchasing flour. He reflects: “What I needed in that situation was one word: komugi. In this experience, I learned that vocabulary is actually more important than grammar.”


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  1. Terrenza:

    This article made me laugh! My Dad was stationed in Turkey in 1961. My then young and bold Mother went to the market with her Turkish-English Dictionary to buy groceries. She very clearly said, “I want some” in Turkish and then said, “these – peaches” in English. Fortunately, another man came to her rescue and translated before the vendor made it around the booth with his fists of fury! “peaches” is not a nice name to call a man in Turkey! I agree with your point about vocabulary before grammar!

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