Tools for language learning: lexical chunking

So clearly I am no expert on second language acquisition. I have however found it helpful in my studying to make Anki cards for not just vocabulary, but also for full sentences or phrases. I’ve been reading book 1 of Harry Potter in French, which means I have an easily comparable English version, and although the paragraph structure is the same, it’s not a word for word translation. And (duh) the French version sounds, well, more French than it would if you just translated it word for word. (Side note: the translators put a lot of thought into translating proper names, as indicated, so that some of J.K. Rowling’s puns or at least the flavor of the English version would get carried through. Hogwarts becomes “Poudlard”; Diagon Alley becomes “Le Chemin de Travers”.) I’ve also been memorizing pieces of the dialogues in Colloquial French 2.

This approach has a name: lexical chunking. Basically it means that you focus on how language fits together, instead of grammar, which is the usual emphasis of a language course. This helpful guide points out that, you’ll still be understood if you don’t know the different between I go and I will go, but you will not be if you don’t know the different between tomorrow and yesterday.

How to implement it? I think a big part is just having authentic sources to listen to. It might be dialogues in a course, or music, or novels, or movies or TV in the target language. Having a transcript is key–and then learning chunks. For example, “Can you please pass the green beans?”, and then substituting in different food items.

Of course there are criticisms of this approach as well, and the NY Times column details them. Obviously at least some grammar is important. But chunking can be a valuable approach to gaining fluency by getting a built-in set of phrases for many common situations–interactions that follow a script, as it were.

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