I’m Gonna Learn Chunks

Chunk is such a wonderful word. It’s one of those words that sounds like what it means, though I wouldn’t classify it as an onomatopoeia like boom, squish, or splat. It’s not used nearly enough, unless you buy lots of peanut butter or watch The Goonies a lot.

Aside from being a pretty great and useful word, a chunk refers to a pretty interesting concept in linguistics. A “chunk” is a set expression (a “chunk” of language, if you will) that is learned separate from grammar or even from vocabulary.

For instance, when I taught in China, a lot of my students knew phrases like “Oh my god”, “I love you”, “Come on baby”, and other phrases that show up in pop songs or advertisements. Some of the students who would say these phrases couldn’t tell me what “my” or “baby” or “love” would translate to in Chinese, or what parts of speech they were in the sentence, but they could say those phrases and know that they were meaningful phrases in English. I should mention that a few students could tell me what those phrases meant and/or break them down grammatically, but not all of them could.

I’ve also learned chunks as a language learner. Sometimes I’d hear a phrase in Mandarin, sometimes from a song lyric, an ad, or a conversation, and try to store it away in my memory for later. Sometimes it turned out to be a great phrase to know, other times my students would look at me like I just grew another head and ask me why I was quoting a pop song while trying to scold them.

You probably use chunks from other languages a lot. Maybe you can’t hold a conversation in French, but you can say that someone has a certain je ne sais quoi. Maybe you can’t follow a telenovela without subtitles, but you tell a guest that “mi casa es su casa“.

I personally think that chunks are actually a good way of getting a feel for the vocabulary and grammar of a language, but only if you can connect those chunks to meaning and form. In the examples I just gave, there is some awareness of what the phrase means. If you just hear or read a phrase and repeat it over and over divorced from meaning or grammar, that’s how you end up with people getting Chinese takeout menu items tattooed over their butts, or, as my professor put forth as an example, elderly Hungarians who can say random phrases in Russian, but have no idea what those phrases mean or how to use them.

When I taught, I tried to take the chunks that my students knew and apply them to grammar and vocabulary lessons. When we learned can/may questions (“May I watch TV?” “Can she use chopsticks?”), the first example I gave was the phrase my students would mumble at the door every day at the start of English class: May I come in? When we learned Do you… questions, my first example was a snippet I’d heard sung around the schoolyard: Do you want to build a snowman?

When I did the French course on Duolingo, I found that reaching into the back of my brain for French phrases that I’ve used or heard as an English speaker helped me solidify examples of grammatical forms and vocabulary words. Sometimes it would be the opposite: I’d learn a new grammatical concept, and all of a sudden, it would click: I’ve used this pattern before in that expression I say to sound sophisticated. I remember this word from something Lumiére said in Beauty and the Beast.

I see chunks as a good building block and template for language learning, but teachers have to be careful to present them as templates or examples, not as bits of rehearsed script with no context or connection to meaning. In addition, because chunks are a good way to introduce more complicated bits of grammar or meaning (for instance, “Come on, baby” is an imperative, which is usually taught/developed relatively late in the language game), teachers need to be mindful of the fact that language learners are going to develop and master some things faster than others. However, chunks can help with that if they’re connected to meaning and form. In yet another example from my own experience, I could sing the lyric “bu yao bei wo de yangzi xia huai” (Do not be frightened by my appearance) from the First Semester of Mandarin staple Kan Guo Lai (Look Over Here), but eight years after I first learned that song, I still have trouble with the “bei (something) (verb)” passive-voice construction when I’m speaking. The song helps me remember it, certainly, but I still have a hard time putting it together properly in the course of a conversation.

Also, as you can tell from my anecdotes (which are totally legitimate data, as all anecdotes are), Disney songs are great for teaching chunks. Except unless I suddenly forget what fire is and why it burns, need to announce my desire for adventure in the great wide somewhere, or to tell people that they should conceal and not feel, my command of Norwegian is pretty minimal.

There’s a lot of debate in the SLA and language teaching fields about the role of chunks and if they’re a good or bad thing to teach. Me in my still-pretty-unqualified opinion? I think they’re a hindrance to development if they’re presented without context or connections, but they’re a springboard to language advancement if they’re used as content examples or as templates to “plug in” new words and combinations.

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