Is “chunking” the answer to language acquisition?

Is “chunking” the answer to language acquisition?

No, but it is an interesting method that might help you.

Neuroscientists have long noticed that grouping information into larger units can greatly assist memory. In language learning it is so much better to think of a phrase or a sentence rather than just a single word in isolation. The native speaker often relies on a “collocation”, which is a word combination that is the habitual juxtaposition of two or more words. For example, in English you get typical collocations like “blissfully ignorant”, “a troubling time”, “jump to conclusions”. When you ask a native speaker why “blissfully”, “troubling” or “jumping” you are met with a puzzled expression. There is then very rarely any attempt at a grammatical or vocabulary explanation but a response such as “well, we just always say it like that!”

Almost from the outset as a child with English-speaking parents you will be learning the correct formulation for short phrases such as “don’t make a mess”, “a little less noise”, “get some sleep”. And you will soon absorb subtle differences of basic verbs such as “come along, come on, come down, come up, come by, come close, come on time, come early, come late, come prepared, come complete with, come to a standstill, come to terms with, come to a decision”, etc, etc - a myriad of nuances demonstrating how vital context is for just that one word. And of course these standard expressions also come eventually in quite lengthy sentences in any language - not always easy to translate when they are idiomatic formulations.

Yesterday at a family gathering I had to start a round of “Happy Birthday” in German. Without really thinking I sang “Zum Geburtstag viel Glück” but subsequently pondered for a moment about the start-up word “Zum” (presumably from phrases such as “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag, Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag usw). So of course there is often an underlying grammatical explanation, but the essential point of “chunking” in language learning is “why bother”? A Geman native speaker would probably just say “well, that is how we start the song”.

A key text on “chunking” is the book and website by Lukas Van Vyve on “Effortless Conversations”, which has explored some of the facets of this method. As a Belgian student of applied linguistics specialising in German and English he described his intense work over four years at University, but how he and his classmates “were still struggling to speak and hold a decent conversation”. His oral examinations were a nightmare. He writes that “Like many language students, I struggled for a long time with learning words, cramming grammar rules, and translating in my head on the fly, until I discovered chunking”.

His “Eureka” moment came during a Master’s degree in Interpretation, with a professor of German who was most unhappy that even after years of intensive study most of the class “were still unable to piece together a coherent, natural-sounding sentence without stumbling and hesitating”. The solution? The professor instructed the class “to listen, read, and observe native Germans while they were taking part in natural conversations”.

One of Lukas Van Vyve’s examples certainly hit home with me yesterday. Why in English, he asks, do you say “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Birthday”, but native speakers would look very puzzled indeed if you said “Merry Birthday”. And the answer from the native speaker would be that the more appropriate “chunk” - because that is the accepted usage - would be “Happy Birthday”.

Lukas Van Vyve notes that adopting “chunking” gives near-automaticity. The phrase “rolls off the tongue in any language”. You do not have to think about the grammar or the sentence structure rules. But you do of course have to memorise these key phrases. He explains the ideas behind his book on a “Language Boost” YouTube video with Jan van der Aa at:

Another discussion of his “chunking” approach was in a podcast with Olly Richards “I will teach you a language 407: Two polyglots geek out on teaching methods (with Lukas Van Vyve)” in which they both agree that there is no one method which suits all in language learning - you need to find your own way.

Lukas Van Vyve is very keen on flash cards, spaced repetition and mnemonics to memorise his “chunks”, whereas of course Olly Richards is famous for his “Stories” approach and “reading, reading, reading”. However, one of Olly’s latest ventures, the excellent courses on “Conversations!” for six languages, is based on listening to natural conversations using colloquial language. And that would be ideal for the development of a “chunking” boost for the intermediate learner.


Hi bembe,

If I use “collocation” on Google Search, I’ll get ca. 500000 search results.

Tens of thousands of pages have been written about it.
So where is the “new” in an idea that has been around for decades?

Das passende Sprichwort dazu in deutscher Sprache: “Alter Wein in neuen Schläuchen”. Or shorter in English: "pseudo innovation (by calling collocations “chunks”).

Besides, I think we can explain (esp. using more advanced communication research) why there are tens of thousands of “highly formulaic expressions” (aka “collocations” and “idioms”) used in everyday communication by native speakers.


  • The reduction of overwhelming linguistic complexity, where any word can theoretically be connected to any other word so that language-based communication would probably collapse in an instant.
  • Other complexity reducing mechanisms beyond highly “formulaic expressions” such as:
  • basic syntactic structures (SVO, SOV, etc.)
  • discourse markers to connect individual sentences
  • the evolution of communicative structures (topics, text genres, discourses, etc.)
  • the evolution of function systems such as science, economy, politics, etc.
    and so forth.

For non-scientifically oriented language learners, the details of what I wrote above are probably not relevant/interesting.

The more interesting question is how to acquire/learn tens of thousands of collocations, as native speakers do. And in this context we have the usual “suspects”:

  • natural SRS (old school jargon: “inputting”)
  • artificial SRS
  • frequency dictionaries
  • collocation dictionaries and search engines
  • the active use of collocations in everyday communications (old school jargon: “outputting”)
    The further question is then how to combine them and make good use of them.

Apropos “effortless conversations” (Lukas Van Vyve):

The problem here is that learning thousands of the (most frequent) collocations requires exactly that: “effort” - to become effortless in everyday communications :slight_smile:

However, all friends of the “super-fast”, “super-easy” and “super-fun” way of (language) learning don’t want to hear that.
Another method (pseudo-innovative or not) won’t change that.

Ergo, nothing new under the language teaching / learning sun…

Have a nice day

PS -

Without really thinking I sang “Zum Geburtstag viel Glück”
Sounds old school.
The younger generation (pre-60) of German native speakers simply sings:
“Happy birthday to you…”.

Or as the international team I’m currently working with would say:
“Happy Geburtstag to you…”
because switching “effortlessly” between German and
English is the new norm here :slight_smile: