Vocab tip: C is for Chunks

Learn chunks to sound fluent and natural.

Have you ever seen a pre-fabricated house being built? It’s a lot faster and easier than building a house brick by brick. Languages  like English come with their own prefabricated parts called ‘chunks’. These are words that are commonly used together and learning them as single units makes it quicker and easier to construct sentences than doing it word by word. That’s a good thing because it will make you sound more fluent, confident and natural.

By some estimates, chunks make up more than half of written and spoken English and  include:

  • words that like to stick together often: e.g. heavy rain, strong winds, stormy weather
  • phrases for particular situations: e.g. “Nice to meet you” or “It was my pleasure.”
  • common speaking phrases e.g. “If I were you I’d…”
  • common written phrases e.g. “In conclusion…..”

So should you abandon learning individual words and instead focus on chunks instead? There are two problems with doing this. The first is that there are a lot more chunks than individual words in English, most likely hundreds of thousands. The second comes from the fact that we memorise chunks as single units. That’s good when it comes to speaking fluently but it means that your brain doesn’t find it easy to access and use the individual words in a chunk on their own.

What to do? Well, vocabulary experts recommend you jump start your English vocabulary by learning the first 3000 most frequently used words as quickly as possible. So, targeting the chunks that are as frequently used as these single words  also makes sense. For English learners, that’s around 550 chunks. That’s a fairly manageable number and learning these chunks will help increase your fluency and should be an efficient use of your learning time. 

There are some great resources and tools for EFL learners looking to use frequency information to select chunks including:

More A-Z of vocabulary tips.

Chunks in the classroom. Michael Swan. (2013)

A reassessment of frequency and vocabulary size in L2 vocabulary teaching. Norbert Schmitt  & Diane Schmitt (2012)

An Academic Formulas List: New Methods in Phraseology Research. SimpsonVlach & Ellis. (2010)

Teaching Chunks of Language: The Issue of Memory . Lindstromberg & Boers (2008)

Beyond single words: the most frequent collocations in spoken English Shin &  Nation (2008)

Frequency and Collocations
– blog post by Brett Reynolds

Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Paul Nation (2001)

The idiom principle and the open choice principle. Erman & Warren (2000)

Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory into Practice. Michael Lewis (1997)

Post image from Life magazine

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