12 – Language is Chunky

The monster walked slowly up to the four boys. It opened its mouth wide. Its mouth was so big that its face disappeared. And the boys only saw teeth, hundreds of ugly teeth. It was a scary sight, but one boy was not scared. He walked up to the monster, and he gave it a large chunk of chocolate. The monster looked happy and started eating. And the boys just walked away.

Many things come in chunks. In the above story, the monster ate a chunk of chocolate. Maybe it likes to eat chunks of cheese, lettuce, or meat. Luckily, it didn’t eat chunks of boys. Instead, the boys paid for their freedom with a chunk of sweet chocolate. Money also comes in chunks. A man might say, “My car cost me a chunk of money.” Even time comes in chunks. For example, “It takes a big chunk of time to learn a language.”

And yes, language also comes in chunks. In fact, one approach to language teaching emphasizes the idea that “language is chunky.” It is called the Lexical Approach. And it was made famous by the linguists Willis (1990) and Lewis (1993). Lewis says that we should not see grammar and vocabulary as separate. Grammar and vocabulary are not two things. Grammar and vocabulary are one. Thus, language works in multi-word chunks. And language teachers need to help students see these chunks so that they can successfully “chunk” the language.

How Do We Chunk?
It seems clear enough that language is chunky, but how do we apply this insight for teaching and learning? Lewis tends to agree with Krashen (1981). Learners acquire language by understanding messages. But in the Lexical Approach, learners don’t only need input. They need to become aware of chunks in the input. For Lewis, learners can begin to chunk by (1) observing, (2) hypothesizing, and (3) experimenting.

First, as a learner gets input, he observes it closely. Perhaps he hears the song, “Hit the Road Jack.” He observes the phrase, “Hit the road,” and he hypothesizes that it means “go away.” Later in the day, after visiting friends, he decides to leave. And as an experiment, he says, “I’m going to hit the road.” And his friends say, “Okay, see you later.” Our learner now realizes that he got it right! And this would be a perfect example of observing-hypothesizing-experimenting. He observed a chunk in the language. He hypothesized about the meaning, and he did an experiment based on his hypothesis.

In the Lexical Approach, Lewis does not use the old teaching pattern of Present-Practice-Produce (PPP). With PPP, the teacher presents a new grammatical form. The students practice it, and then produce it. Instead, Lewis suggests a more scientific approach where learners observe, hypothesize, and experiment. Learners are like scientists working with chunks of language. However, as one might imagine, teachers will find it challenging to help students find and experiment with chunks on their own.

Teaching Lexically
As teachers, we can help learners notice chunks. For example, during an intensive reading session, a teacher asks students to observe a text and make guesses (hypothesize) about the chunks in the text. The teacher says, “After reading the text, highlight phrases that you think are chunks.” After they do this, students write their chunks on the board, and the teacher shows the class which phrases are really chunky and which are not. Then students can write the chunks on word cards and study them like vocabulary with retrieval, spacing, and interleaving. Basically, this requires students to (1) understand what chunks are; (2) notice them in the language input; (3) and memorize them.

Learning chunks also includes learning the following different kinds of language chunks (Racine, 2018):

  • Idioms: a piece of cake, head in the clouds, sit on the fence
  • Proverbs: Don’t judge a book by its cover. The early bird catches the worm. Do as you would be done to.
  • Compound Words: long-term, up-to-date, coffee mug, dinner table
  • Phrasal Verbs: keep up with, look forward to, break out, bring up
  • Two Word Chunks: sick and tired, short and sweet, back and forth, safe and sound, sooner or later.
  • Three Word Chunks: this, that, and the other; small, medium, and large; mind, body, and soul.
  • Similes: as light as a feather; as tough as nails; as cold as ice.

At this point, we can see that we may have trouble making the Lexical Approach our full teaching method. But we can use it as a principle to guide our teaching. That is, language is chunky, so we need to acquire it in chunks. Thus, as teachers we can work to help our learners be aware of chunks. We can help them find ways to remember chunks. And we can help them find ways to use chunks of language when they communicate.


Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock works as Professor of English Linguistics in the Faculty of International Communication at Senshu University.