Chunking a language

A learning process called ‘chunking’ may help language learners to progress.

Chunking is the process of learning a language by lexical ‘chunks’ rather than word-by-word, for example the phrase “Hi, how are you?” is learned in its whole form rather than the individual components.

A native speaker picks up thousands of chunks like “heavy rain” or “make yourself at home” in childhood, and psycholinguistic research suggests that these phrases are stored and processed in the brain as individual units. As the University of Nottingham linguist Norbert Schmitt has explained, it is much less taxing cognitively to have a set of ready-made lexical chunks at our disposal than to have to work through all the possibilities of word selection and sequencing every time we open our mouths.

Cognitive studies of chunking have been bolstered by computer-driven analysis of usage patterns in large databases of texts called “corpora.” As linguists and lexicographers build bigger and bigger corpora (a major-league corpus now contains billions of words, thanks to readily available online texts), it becomes clearer just how “chunky” the language is, with certain words showing undeniable attractions to certain others. (Source: New York Times)

The process has already been applied to teaching languages, with a 1993 book by Michael Lewis setting out a programme of action. This has been followed by more recent works such as “From Corpus to Classroom: Language Use and Language Teaching” and “Teaching Chunks of Language: From Noticing to Remembering”.

Whilst some teachers are in favour, saying that the process leads to a ‘nativelike’ fluency, the method has it’s critics. Michael Swan, a British writer on language pedagogy says it’s:

unrealistic to expect that teaching chunks will produce nativelike proficiency in language learners. “Native English speakers have tens or hundreds of thousands — estimates vary — of these formulae at their command,” he says. “A student could learn 10 a day for years and still not approach native-speaker competence.”

Chunking may be the latest theory for learning a language, but Swan also warns against ignoring other aspects including focussing on vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. It seems to be well-rounded in the language, all these aspects need to be incorporated.