How the chunking method can help you learn English

How the chunking method can help you learn English

by Laura Jones

Updated November 10, 2022

Feeling frustrated by learning long lists of vocabulary? Find that you recognise words when someone else says them, but have no idea how to use them yourself?
It’s all too common for English learners to become overwhelmed by the number of words they are expected to know. And hours of memorising vocabulary rarely pays off when you’re out in the real world. But there is an easier and much better way to learn new language. It’s called chunking, learning languages in chunks. So what is it, and how do you use it to become a better language learner?

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What is chunking?

Chunking is learning a language in context. It means learning phrases, or groups of words, rather than single words. These chunks of language could be things like set phrases, fixed phrases and other lexical chunks.
Some examples are by the way and a sense of humour.

Why is chunking a good way to learn?

Chunking lets us take lots of small bits of information – new words – and put them together so we have one larger thing to remember.

This larger thing – a phrase – is more meaningful than the single words. So, it is much easier to remember.

To get a bit into the science, our brains are naturally designed to see and form patterns, so we’re doing our brain a favour by feeding it chunks of language. In turn, our brain does a wonderful job and actually remembers those chunks. 

Chunking allows us to have a lot of useful phrases on hand when we have conversations in a second language. Rather than having to find each individual word when we want to say something, we can find an entire chunk. This makes our speech much faster and more fluent.

Finally, speaking in chunks lets us speak in a grammatically correct way without us really having to learn grammar. Which is the best way to tackle grammar in my opinion.

Look at the examples in the next section to see this in action.

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How to use chunking in language learning?

Learners have a tendency to want to know what every single word in a phrase means. But that just isn’t helpful sometimes. Here are some examples of chunks of vocabulary:

Take a simple phrase like “what’s up?

This is commonly used to ask how are you? or what’s wrong? in English speaking countries. But if you break it down, you get what-is-up? This phrase understood word for word might make you stare at the sky, looking for planes and clouds. Or you might think it’s a very philosophical question. What is up? What is down? Where am I? Learn “what’s up?” as a chunk however, and you will always know what it means. 

Now let’s think about a sentence and break it into chunks: I used to go to the beach every weekend when I was a kid. There are several chunks in this sentence which would be worth learning. We can look at two of them:

I used to: You can use this over and over again in English. It means I did something often but I don’t do it now. It can also be used to talk about states, so it’s very versatile. “I used to meet my friends every Saturday morning. I used to love McDonald’s when I was younger.”

When I was a kid:” This is a very natural phrase that native speakers use to talk about when they were young. “When I was a kid I loved swimming. I lived in the US when I was a kid.

These chunks of language stick in your memory, ready to be used whenever you need them. And going back to knowing the correct grammar without learning it: when you learn a chunk, you know without thinking that it’s “I used to go“, not “I used to went”, for example.

When to use chunking?

You can use chunking every time you read or hear something in a foreign language. Break down what you hear not into single words but into chunks, some of which you have probably heard before. 

What are you up to today? It depends on the weather.”

If I were you, I’d check the forecast.”

There are three excellent chunks in just this short exchange.

Chunking is for all language learners at all levels. Beginners shouldn’t be afraid to learn very useful full sentences and questions. “Can you help me?” works much better than help! And “Can I have a pint of coke, please?” is far nicer than “coke, please.” Do beginners need to understand the nuances of the modal verb can before they use it? Not in these chunks of language, no. 

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Laura is a freelance writer and was an ESL teacher for eight years. She was born in the UK and has lived in Australia and Poland, where she writes blogs for Lingoda about everything from grammar to dating English speakers. She’s definitely better at the first one. She loves travelling and that’s the other major topic that she writes on. Laura likes pilates and cycling, but when she’s feeling lazy she can be found curled up watching Netflix. She’s currently learning Polish, and her battle with that mystifying language has given her huge empathy for anyone struggling to learn English. Find out more about her work in her portfolio.

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