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Should You Learn Korean Vocabulary or Grammar First?

One of the biggest questions asked by Korean language learners just starting out is this: Should I learn Korean vocabulary or grammar first? The short answer is that you should learn both first at the same time. It is much more beneficial for you to consider each equally important. Let’s examine why that is, even if you’re a complete beginner.

Should you learn Korean vocabulary or grammar first?
The truth is, you can’t have any kind of conversation without both so you need to learn Korean vocabulary and grammar at the same time.

Vocabulary is important because you need words to talk about literally anything you want to discuss in a conversation. Vocabulary is essentially labeling items, thoughts, concepts, etc.

However, grammar is equally important. Grammar strings the vocabulary together and takes you from speaking like a caveman to speaking more clearly. Without grammar, you’d just be shouting words with no bridge between them.

Let’s dive into these two factors a little more.

What’s more important to learn, Korean vocabulary or grammar?

Why are they both important? Simply stated, you can’t learn a language without learning both, so you may as well focus equally on each. It may seem like a lot at once, and you may feel it will slow down your progress. However, you can actually build better Korean sentences faster and progress in your language learning more easily if you learn them both together.

Learn Korean Vocabulary and Grammar together to progress faster
You’ll progress more if you learn both vocabulary and grammar together

Learn Korean Vocabulary:

If you’re going to have a conversation with someone, even in the absolute most basic, simplified way, you need vocabulary. Think of your own first language. In my case that’s English. Now try to imagine talking to someone without knowing the words you need to express yourself.

Have you ever forgotten what something is called, and the word is on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t grab it?

“Did you see my, oh what’s it called? You know, my thing-a-ma-jig. I can’t find it.”

It’s frustrating when that happens.

Well, if you aren’t putting a focus on vocabulary, that’s exactly what an entire conversation would be like. For example, picture yourself trying to tell a new friend what your absolute favorite food is.

Except you have no idea what the word is for food, lunch, supper, meat, pasta, rice, vegetable, cheese, etc. If you don’t know how to say the things you need to include in your sentence, the conversation is going to stop before it gets started.

You need to learn Korean vocabulary if you want to speak Korean. It’s a definite necessity.

But don’t think, “okay! Question answered, I’ll go focus all of my time on studying vocab lists!” Knowing a list of 500 high-frequency Korean words isn’t going to get you very far either.

Not unless you want to just ramble a bunch of out-of-context words at some poor unsuspecting conversation partner.

Learn Korean Grammar:

The grammar is what you need to make all the vocabulary you’re learning make sense. It connects the words and gives context to what you’re saying.

Let’s examine why the grammar is such an important piece of the puzzle.

You’ve learned that the word for book is 책 – that’s great! But now imagine your conversation partner has just asked you what you did last night. If all you can say is 책 then that’s not really helpful. Did you read a book? Write a book? Buy a book? Borrow a book?

I know what you’re thinking! You could easily argue that all those verbs are also vocabulary. And you’re right. 읽다, 쓰다, 사다, 빌리다 are all technically vocabulary. But don’t you want to know how to conjugate those verbs?

How can you explain you were reading a book last night if you don't know all the pieces you need to build that sentence?

After all it would be pretty weird to say last night you 책 읽다 – book, to read. Wouldn’t you prefer to say 책을 읽었어요? “I read a book” sounds far less like toddler-speak and much more like natural conversation.

But in order to get there, you need to know the grammar structure to conjugate a verb to past tense. In this example you also need to learn the grammar involved in using 을/를 which is an object marking particle.

Learning Korean Grammar expands your sentences

As you learn more grammar, you can expand your sentences to be more complex. Once you learn to say “I read a book” you can learn the grammar to say “I intended to read a book but I watched TV.” 책을 읽으려고 했지만 TV를 봤어요.

Learning grammar means your Korean sentences can be more complete.

However, I’m not suddenly saying that grammar is more important after all. Because it’s not. It’s still just as important to learn Korean vocabulary too.

Learning Korean Vocabulary makes your sentences more interesting!

If we go back to the simple sentence of “I read a book” as the answer to what you did last night, it’s fine as far as sentences go. You’ve got a noun, you’ve got a verb, it includes a particle, it’s conjugated to the past tense, and you’ve also used informal polite speech (more on speech levels another day!). It’s a complete, proper sentence.

책을 읽었어요.

Overall, there is nothing wrong with the sentence. But it’s kind of boring isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be nice to spice it up a bit? To do that, you need more vocabulary.

What kind of book was it?

재미있는 책을 읽었어요. – I read an interesting book.

재미없는 책을 읽었어요. – I read a boring book.

무서운 책을 읽었어요 – I read a scary book.

Now it’s more interesting.

When you learn Korean vocabulary AND grammar together, your sentences grow

There is no end to the growth your conversation can have if you continue to learn new vocabulary and new grammar at the same time. If you want to say “I read a scary book before bed” then you need to vocabulary for scary, book, read, and bed. But you also need the grammar to express the concept of before bed and to conjugate the verb to the past tense.

자기 전에 무서운 책을 읽었어요.

That’s better right?

Your sentence building is practically limitless if you make sure you’re consistently building your vocabulary and your grammar at the same time.

자기 전에 무서운 책을 읽어서 잠을 잘 수 없었어요. – I read a scary book before bed, so I couldn’t sleep.

See? It’s much better to learn both than to know vocabulary without the grammar to use them, or a bunch of grammar rules with no vocabulary to support them.

Where can you learn Korean vocabulary and grammar?

You should learn Korean vocabulary and Grammar at the same time
Don’t prioritize one over the other

I already have a list of resources to learn Korean for free that can give you some guidance. However, here are a few particularly good options, both free and paid.

*Talk to Me in Korean – practically the gold standard for learning Korean online through self-study. TTMIK had an entire full curriculum completely free for over a decade, but they’ve recently switched to a paid model. They do have tons of free videos on YouTube though, which will help you out!

*Coursera’s First Step Korean course – a university style course taught by a language professor at Korea’s Yonsei University. The professor teaches a lot of great introductory level grammar and you will naturally pick up vocabulary to go with it.

*Go Billy Korean’s Beginner course on YouTube – a fantastic way to get started, broken down into 100 easy-to-watch videos. He also has a ridiculous amount of other videos besides the beginner course.

As for me, I use these resources (and more), but I also take classes through the Korean Cultural Center of Canada. While not free, it’s extremely reasonably priced and the classes are small. I take a class once a week on Zoom for a 15 week semester with a teacher who is able to give a lot of personalized instruction. If you’re local, check them out. If you’re not Canadian, check with your own country’s Korean embassy or Culture Center to see if they offer classes too – I love self-study too, but having an actual teacher you can speak with is amazing!

One thing you will note right away is that all three of those options teach you both vocabulary and grammar at the same time.

Because like I said, you really can’t learn one without the other. They need each other. Picking just one to focus on would be like trying to make a peanut butter sandwich but only using the peanut butter OR the bread. You just can’t make it work without the other.

Tell me in the comments below what methods you’re doing to learn Korean vocabulary or grammar. Have you noticed that both are equally important?

열심히 공부하세요! Study hard!


Embassy of the Republic of Korean / Korean Cultural Center - 2023 Honorary Reporter

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