vocab vs. grammar

There was a lively debate on HTLAL this past week about whether grammar or vocabulary is more fun to learn. Actually, hardly a debate since it seemed to be more of an expression of personal preferences and a listing of enjoyable ways that different people studied. One thing that got me thinking, however, was the way the discussion only discussed learning individual vocabulary words or learning discrete formulaic grammar rules. To me, language is much more subtle than that and there are many connections and layers to it.

I agreed with one of the commenters, who said that most kids and adults can speak well without understanding the “underlying” grammar rules, but I think there’s a problem here. I don’t believe that the grammar rules are “underlying”. I’d actually say the opposite, that the rules are closer to “overlaying”. Grammar rules are an artificial construction and are not necessary for learning the language. They are incomplete, underspecified, and mostly just an attempt at description, but we as language learners tend to put a lot of importance into them sometimes.

The rules for how a language works are usually more complex than the pieces we recognize as “grammar”. It’s an interesting task to try to describe a language with a set of rules, but the rules become too cumbersome if we try and include all of the features. They end up just being a list of exceptions. Rules just “feel” better when they are parsimonious. If we can make them as simple as possible without being useless, then they feel more mathematically pure and satisfying to us. Parsimony is a wonderful principle to strive for in descriptions, and grammar rules can be useful in many ways, but we can’t get distracted by believing that they *are* the language. There’s more to it. “The map is not the territory.”

In real language, even if you’ve mastered these rules and try to produce some sentences in accordance with them, you’ll find that only a subset of the results are actually “correct”. There’s another layer at work, with acquired experience determining which of the grammatically correct sentences are actually still valid in the language. One example I can think of right now is that in English we have the phrase “lethal injection”, but we can’t say “deadly injection” or “mortal injection”. In one sense, they are sort of correct and everyone will understand them, but to an experienced speaker of the language they just aren’t acceptable.

So, although grammar is sometimes interesting to me, and vocabulary is more interesting, this other mysterious level of the language is what I’m most interested in investigating. It’s like memorizing hundreds of digits of Pi…there are many little interconnected intricacies that defy generalized patterns, but you can make up your own little patterns to help you as you go along. Those little made-up patterns you find are not Pi, they are your own creations. They don’t reflect the entire number, or define it. But they can be very helpful to you in their own way.

In computational linguistics, when trying to get a computer program to understand language at some level, there’s been a big push to develop statistical strategies rather than relying on pre-formed grammar rules. The grammar rules always have too many exceptions and are hard to manually program in, but using statistical methods you can “feed” your program more examples and have it get closer to the real language. I actually think this matches more closely how humans learn too. Instead of specifically studying grammar and vocab as individual items, I enjoy it more if I feed my brain on multiple levels simultaneously by trying to understand examples however I can.

I’m also really interested in “everyday” and casual speech. It’s so hard to learn from books, because it’s hard to make those simple rules to describe it. You have to learn it from examples in real life and absorb it, since a lot of it is more like verbal customs that are acceptable rather than mathematical rules. Those customs can often change quickly, and are different in different locations, so they wouldn’t necessarily help sell a book well. At this level, the language is hard to make rules about, and is hard to commodify. You just have to jump in and experience it.


2 Responses to vocab vs. grammar

  1. Keith says:

    You are absolutely correct about the grammar overlay. Language evolved for hundreds of years without grammar. Grammar was constructed from language. Not the other way around.

    Everybody picks up a first language without studying grammar. Some even pick-up a second language the same way. People can study grammar all they want, however, no one can become fluent by applying grammar rules. It is only when one can speak without thinking about grammar that one can become fluent. Am I right?

  2. Aaron says:

    I really like the phrase “overlaying grammar rules”. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

    The prevailing theory about language learning is that the human mind couldn’t possibly learn every different combination of words. So there must be some function that allows us to take individual elements (vocabulary) and run them through some equation (grammar)to get all of the allowable sentences.

    I don’t think that’s how the brain works. I think that the part of our brains that processes language is storing memories of an astounding number of different word combinations. We create new combinations through analogy.

    The “other mysterious level” of language that you refer to is known as collocation – the way that words group together.

    This is exactly the reason that I (among others) advocate learning language by memorizing phrases rather than the traditional vocab-grammar method.

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