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Friday, November 11, 2011


Short conversations  at


Lettering by Collins: Photograph by Andrew French           By BEN ZIMMER

It becomes clearer how “chunky” the language is, with certain words showing undeniable attractions to certain others. Many English-language teachers have been eager to apply corpus findings in the classroom to zero in on salient chunks rather than individual vocabulary words. This is especially so among teachers of English as a second language, since it’s mainly the knowledge of chunks that allows non-native speakers to advance toward nativelike fluency. In his 1993 book, “The Lexical Approach,” Michael Lewis set out a program of action, and the trend has continued in such recent works as “From Corpus to Classroom: Language Use and Language Teaching” and “Teaching Chunks of Language: From Noticing to Remembering.”
Not everyone is on board, however. Michael Swan, a British writer on language pedagogy, has emerged as a prominent critic of the lexical-chunk approach. Though he acknowledges, as he told me in an e-mail, that “high-priority chunks need to be taught,” he worries that “the ‘new toy’ effect can mean that formulaic expressions get more attention than they deserve, and other aspects of language — ordinary vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and skills — get sidelined.”

On chunks and language learning

Ben Zimmer has a great column in today’s New York Times about chunking. A chunk is a fixed piece of language that frequently occurs in particular contexts to fulfill the same function. Zimmer gives examples like “make yourself at home” as well as Halliday’s classic observation that we drink “strong tea” but get caught in a “heavy rain” (and never “heavy tea” and “strong rain”).
In academic writing, chunking (or collocations, or fixed expressions) is essential for proficiency. In the last week, I’ve been teaching phrases like “pose a threat to” and “raise an issue.” And it’s hard to imagine empirical research papers without clauses like “the results are statistically significant.”
For my take on this topic, check out the three-part video presentation I made an UNC (you can also just read the PowerPoint slides!).

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