On Language – Learning Language in Chunks


I wondered how much — or how little — his grasp of basic linguistic etiquette is grounded in the syntactical rules that structure how words are combined in English. An idiom like “Make yourself at home” is rather tricky if you stop to think about it: the imperative verb “make” is followed by a second-person reflexive pronoun (“yourself”) and an adverbial phrase (“at home”), but it’s difficult to break the phrase into its components. Instead, we grasp the whole thing at once.

Ritualized moments of everyday communication — greeting someone, answering a telephone call, wishing someone a happy birthday — are full of these canned phrases that we learn to perform with rote precision at an early age. Words work as social lubricants in such situations, and a language learner like Blake is primarily getting a handle on the pragmatics of set phrases in English, or how they create concrete effects in real-life interactions. The abstract rules of sentence structure are secondary.

In recent decades, the study of language acquisition and instruction has increasingly focused on “chunking”: how children learn language not so much on a word-by-word basis but in larger “lexical chunks” or meaningful strings of words that are committed to memory. Chunks may consist of fixed idioms or conventional speech routines, but they can also simply be combinations of words that appear together frequently, in patterns that are known as “collocations.” In the 1960s, the linguist Michael Halliday pointed out that we tend to talk of “strong tea” instead of “powerful tea,” even though the phrases make equal sense. Rain, on the other hand, is much more likely to be described as “heavy” than “strong.”

First, the They Might Be Giants children songs the author talks about will soon be in my collection. I’d never heard of them before.

Second, I’m a big believer in chunking. Interest and research findings ebb and wane in this area quite regularly. Regardless, of contrarian findings on the pedagogical focus of chunking, I think it is essential for the improvement of fluency and is a good approach to vocabulary learning.

Also, his suggestion that corpus-based findings will drive language learning materials for the near future is right on. Why wouldn’t it. One can argue about the corpra being used, but not with the approach. Don’t learn the language though up in the author’s mind. Learn language that is being used for non-learning purposes (authentic materials).

Nice to see this piece in the NYT.

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