The Problem Is Vocab, Not Grammar

This post is not about teaching grammar. This post is about its role in comprehension. Grammar can tell you a word’s function, but what impact does that have if you’re struggling to understand what words mean?! It’s still all about words. In fact, all words contain grammar. If you know what a word means, you’re a little bit closer to acquiring its grammar each time you encounter it. In this post, I use a language I’ve made up for other demonstrations, aptly dubbed Piantagginish, to show how vocab—not grammar—is the real problem regarding comprehension. The pedagogical takeaway is to avoid vocab overload, and shelter vocab whenever possible…

Some time ago, I adapted a commonly shared presentation by Marcos Benevides designed to show English speakers how hard it is to understand texts with known vocabulary below 98%, a figure from the research of Hsueh-Chao, M. H., & Nation, P. (2000). Marcos replaced English words with jabberwocky-type nonsense. In my adaptation, I messed with the syntax to simulate what a beginner would actually experience. Here’s the text-coverage level of 80% where reading starts to get real wonky:

Even if you can derive meaning, the reading process is *not* easy, requiring considerable cognitive demand to get through. Still, you know the language, English, so even this demonstration might not impress you. Therefore, let’s turn to Piantagginish to help illustrate that vocabulary, not grammar, is the issue with comprehension. To start, give this paragraph a read:

Derek laba stan kuit meznid. Derek laba stan kuit meznid; ne laba stan glok meznid. Derek laba stan kuit meznid li Joe smek. Joe ne Derek smek.

No idea, right, besides something about Derek and Joe? Yeah. This is a text coverage of 20% (i.e. “Derek” and “Joe” among 8 other words). Now, I’m going to give you a baaaaaaasic Piantagginish reference with all the grammar contained in that paragraph. Granted, you need to know what all the linguistic terms mean, or at least decode THOSE first—and that’s why I wrote Magister P’s Pop-Up Grammar—but let’s assume you had a very traditional language experience, and know that “declines” means “changes ending” etc.

  • Proper nouns don’t decline
  • Nouns end in -d
  • Direct objects appear before or after the verb
  • Verbs end in a, or -k or -d
  • Adverbs end in t, or -k
  • Prepositions end in -n

Still no idea, right? That’s 100% of the grammar you need to know, and 20% of the word meanings. Now, I’m going to give you the meaning of just two more words, doubling your vocab coverage to 40%:

  • laba runs
  • glok slowly

With that information, you should be able to reread the Piantagginish paragraph and process a message about Derek running, and something done slowly. Now, let me double your text coverage again to 80%, as you reread below:

  • stan out (of)
  • kuit quickly
  • ne doesn’t
  • li and

Derek laba stan kuit meznid. Derek laba stan kuit meznid; ne laba stan glok meznid. Derek laba stan kuit meznid li Joe smek. Joe ne Derek smek.

You still don’t know what meznid or smek mean, which is unfortunate because every message includes one of those words, and smek is the only “big content word” in the last sentence. N.B. a “big content word” is one that holds meaning, like “dog” or “ran,” and not “function words” like “the” or “and” or “often.” Learners process the words with the most meaning before those without. Therefore, not knowing verbs and nouns can be the difference between a sentence having some meaning, or being utterly incomprehensible. So, that was what 100% grammar, and 80% vocab feels like. But now, let’s do this in reverse! For the next new paragraph, Imma give you 80% word meanings, first:

Derek Joe bzatik. Derek Joe bzatik inc svened Joe. clautzim ergmud Joe svened. glum Derek bzatik Joe, erd fliggmt Derek bzatik. erd fliggmt bzatik Derek inc erd Derek svened.

  • inc because
  • svened is/are annoyed by
  • clautzim all
  • ergmud people
  • erd a person
  • fliggmt many times

You still don’t know what bzatik or glum mean, which is still unfortunate because almost every message includes one of those words. Now, here’s all the grammar in there:

  • Proper nouns don’t decline
  • Nouns end in -d
  • Direct objects appear before or after the verb
  • Plural infix is -gmu
  • Adjectives end in m
  • Verbs end in a, or -k, or -d
  • Adverbs end in t, or -k
  • Conjunctions end in m

All the grammar you need to decode bzatik or glum is highlighted red. That’s 100% grammar coverage, yet it doesn’t help, does it? You still lack 20% vocab coverage to really understand what’s going on. I’ll even clue you in that bzatik is a verb, and glum is a conjunction. Still, with this grammar knowledge, what does bzatik or glum mean? You don’t know. To drive this point home, I’ll have you read the following, referencing anything you need abut Piantagginish above:

Kat laba stan Hofbrauhaus. Kat laba stan kuit Hofbrauhaus; ne laba stan glok Hofbrauhaus. Sara laba stan glok Hofbrauhaus. Kat laba stan Hofbrauhaus inc Kat svened Hofbrauhaus. Sara ne svened Hofbrauhaus.

Kat svened Sara. clautzim ergmud Sara svened. erd Kat svened. erd Rockso. Rockso svened Kat. Rockso ne svened Sara; Rockso svened Kat.

The paragraphs above are written with 100% text coverage given Piantagginish found throughout this post used as reference. My question for you to ponder: “In order to read these last new paragraphs, did you refer to the grammar references, or the vocab?”

Exactly.

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