When to use (and not use) grammar

I’m a huge believer in using grammar as a tool for understanding and learning how to speak Japanese. So much so that I built a whole website about it. However, when I ran across a list of Korean irregular verbs while going through Google Reader, I began to wonder whether grammar is always a useful tool.

The list contains only 10 verbs, not nearly as many as I remember from my horrible experiences in High School Spanish. Still, that’s far more than the 2 in Japanese and the author mentions that he will continue to add to the list as time allows.

Speaking of Spanish, I shudder when I think back to memorizing all the various verb tenses in singular/plural and 1st/2nd/3rd person for each irregular verb. When I see a page that lists 200 common (not all!) irregular verbs, I can only think that learning grammar here becomes more of an hindrance than an aid.

Thankfully, Japanese grammar is simple and consistent enough to become a powerful tool for learning how to easily handle any arbitrary verb or adjective. But it’s good to keep in mind that it’s only a tool nonetheless. I think there’s a fuzzy line where too many exceptions, rules, and inconsistencies can render grammar a rather cumbersome and limited tool for the learner.

English and Spanish, I would say easily crosses that line. Personally, I’ve never used Pimsleur but there’s an argument to be made for learning how people say things without really understanding how the grammar works for some languages (not Japanese). After all, native speakers usually don’t know all the grammar rules for their language. They just know what sounds right from experience.

However, Korean grammar is kind of between Japanese and English in terms of complexity. There’s an excellent website called Luke Park’s Guide to Korean Grammar, which has slowly grown into a very nice resource. However, when I see 5 rules just to get the present informal tense when Japanese has none, I think, “Japanese is awesome!” and “Wow, Korean looks hard!”

From http://parksguide.blogspot.com/2006/11/very-useful-verbs.html

II. Plain Form → Present Tense (Spoken)

● Rules

1. For verbs with ㅏ/ㅓ and no final consonant, just take 다 off.
Exceptions: A verb with 하 as a final letter, 하 changes to 해.

2. For verbs with ㅗ/ㅜ and no final consonant, add ㅏ for ㅗ verbs and ㅓ for ㅜ verbs.

3. For a verb with 르 as a final letter, add ㄹ to a letter before 르 and 르 changes to 라 for ㅏ/ㅗ verbs and 러 for ㅓ/ㅜ/ㅣ verbs.

4. For a verb with l and no final consonant, change ㅣto 여.

5. For a verb with a final consonant, first take 다 off then add 아 for ㅏ/ㅗ verbs, and 어 for ㅓ/ㅜ verbs.

Since the rules are based on phonetic vowel sounds, maybe it’s better to just wing it and let your ears and listening practice do the work instead of your brain. I’d be interested in hearing people’s experiences in learning Korean.

15 thoughts on “When to use (and not use) grammar

  1. Hey, I’m not learning Korean, but I think your blog is awesome! keep posting! I don’t like grammar.

  2. I’m going to Korea soon to study, so I’m brushing up on my Korean right now. :3

    I have run across Monsieur Park’s site before and thought it was put together pretty well. However, I do have to agree that intellectualising certain aspects of grammar can make them more complex than they need to be.

    For learning Korean, look no further than “Let’s Speak Korean.” It has (someone who I assume is) a native speaker, a damn-near fluent foreigner, and two foreign students as its hosts. They don’t usually go fully in-depth in their explanations on grammar, but they do give you a general rule for various situations and sentence constructions.

    In general, I find that Korean grammar isn’t that hard; it’s just different. Granted, I’ve studied Japanese for quite a while, so I can make comparisons to Japanese grammar, making the process much much easier. So, don’t take my word for it.

  3. I agree. The te-form is one of those things where I really wish my teach just would have made us listen to it being said alot and made us say it. The rules may work but it’s just a lot easier to learn it by listening. Same with chau/jau.

  4. Hahahah don’t let that list of 10 deceive you, Tae. Korean has so many irregular verbs you’re honestly, completely unjokingly, totally seriously better off memorizing REGULAR verbs, as that will take less effort. If I were to list regular verbs I know off the top of my head I’d give you a list of 10, and my vocabulary is a little higher than 2000 words at the moment. I have a book that lists a few pages of irregular verbs and their conjugations just for kicks and reference.

    And actually, conjugating in Korean is quite easy. Takes a few days of practice but then you can do it pretty easily. Vowel harmony is wonderful for that. 😀

    While I can’t speak for Japanese since I never studied it very far, Korean gets ridiculously complex in its nuances. There are 7 nominalizers that fall under 3 categories. I mean come on. Seriously. :/

  5. Grammar isn’t (supposed to be) about memorizing a lot of lists. It’s about seeing patterns. If there are 200 irregular verbs in a language, they probably can and should be grouped into categories or patterns.

    Ancient Greek, for instance, has several kinds of verbs that don’t follow the same pattern as all the others, but each category of them does have a pattern. Contract verbs have a stem ending in a vowel, and the vowel contracts with the thematic vowel, following a regular pattern. This makes them seem different than verbs with a consonantal stem, but once you understand the pattern, you don’t have to memorize them all, you just learn to see (or hear) the pattern. Then there are verbs with multiple roots, like esthio (which becomes fagomai in the future; it has two roots, *esthi, which is attested only in the “present” (which would be better named the imperfect, but that’s another story), and *fag, which is used in the other tenses), but that’s more of a vocabulary issue, and anyway there are only about half a dozen of them. The weirdest ones are athematic verbs, which don’t use the thematic vowel, reduplicate in the present, and use a slightly different set of inflectional endings from thematic verbs. But, again, it’s a pattern, and they all do basically the same thing.

    So, anyway, as I was saying, Grammar is not supposed to be about memorizing a lot of stuff. Quite the contrary. Grammar is supposed to be about seeing the patterns that make all that memorization unnecessary.

    If you have verbs that really are irregular, i.e., they do not follow the same pattern as any other verb in the language, that’s not grammar. That’s vocabulary. When you learn the verb, you learn its principle parts or different stems or whatever you want to call them. So for instance, studying English, when you learn the verb “go”, you learn that the past form of it is “went”. That’s vocabulary, and yeah, vocabulary *is* about memorization. Lots and lots of memorization.

  6. Nice blog!! and really good job on the Japanese grammar guide.

    I am not learning Korea but maybe one day I will get to that. The next language on my list is Italian.

    by the way I have a blog that teaches Japanese too (Japanese999.com) so any input is appreciated.

  7. I have been learning Korean for a long time, and I think there are not so many irregular verbs.
    Sometimes there are special rules, like ㅂ irregular verbs, ㄹ etc.
    but in general it is easy to learn.
    그 여자가 액을 먹고 나았어 .
    and not 낫았어, but in general this is few.

  8. I came across your Japanese grammar guide from searching on google. Just want to say it is very professionally written and well structured. I definitely plan to go through the entire document in my spare time. I plan to go to Japan next year on a student exchange program. With your grammar guide, I’m sure I can learn a great deal in a year! Thank you very much!

  9. Yes, granted there are 5 kinds of basic irregular verbs and you need only memorize the method of conjugation, but my point is that it’s easier to memorize a list of the verbs in those categories that DON’T conjugate irregularly. Although it’s strange because irregular verbs in Korean have a pattern to follow most of the time. TRUE irregular verbs in Korean… 하다? Is that it?

    • Not really. There are the ㅡ and ㅂ irregular verbs. Like 춥다, for instance. But it’s not like they don’t have rules.

      I don’t know… Categorizing English verbs? Was? Went? Came? Flew? Left? Ran?
      Doesn’t seem like there’s a rule to English irregular verbs. The only one I can think of is: bought, sought, thought…

      Yeah, I learned the rules for te-form but eventually you jut get it by ear. I’m still going by the Korean rules. But I’m slowly just getting it.

      KoreanClass101 makes it easy.
      Take off 다.
      Just add 아 if the last syllable in the verb stem has (아 or 오) otherwise add 어 and they have a conjugation chart for 어 and what it changes to depending on the vowel it combines with.
      And for 하다 verbs, take off 다, add 여.
      I just don’t get why 하 + 여 = 해.

      So only three rules, really, once you get the conjugation chart down.

      르… well the only verb I encountered that had it was 모르다 and they showed how it changes to 몰라 I’m pretty sure.

  10. I actually found Spanish verbs pretty easy to get a handle on. For a few days I practiced writing conjugation tables over and over — probably not all that unlike practicing kana tables by the same method — and then I had a good enough grasp that I never needed to do so again. Do I know every irregular verb that there is to know in Spanish? No, I don’t. But I have a pretty good command of the ones that are common, and the ones that aren’t so common aren’t likely to present any serious difficulty. You also quickly get a sense of which words are irregular and which aren’t, although on occasion your guess will be wrong, but it’ll usually be a pretty darn good guess. Once you know that, it’s just a matter of following simple patterns.

    I also think Spanish verbs are also easier to get used to than the agglutination found in Japanese, where an important change in the meaning of the sentence could be hidden in a single vowel buried in the middle of the word (話さなくなかった and 話せなくなかった is just one possible example). In Spanish, I think context is more likely to fill in what was meant if you mishear a vowel, since Spanish has more redundancies than Japanese does.

    I’m also learning Italian — at a very casual pace, something more for fun than serious study — and I’m experimenting with the idea of never even writing out conjugation tables, instead memorizing them through Anki. I have no idea yet how it’s going to turn out, but so far it doesn’t seem so bad. (Italian is even less regular than Spanish, by the way, from everything I’ve heard.)

    – Kef

  11. Oops, heh, obviously I screwed up the Japanese grammar in my previous posts. Dunno why I ended up using double negatives… so I guess that should be 話さなかった and 話せなかった. Which aren’t particularly long words, but the same thing can happen in longer words that don’t really come to mind right now…

  12. Dear Sir / Madam,
    I want to upload some Japaness grammar summary/comments written by my father to internet so that to get some feedback. Please let me know any URL I can use.
    Shaoning Wan

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