Chunking language

Any article that begins with a reference to They Might Be Giants (or, as they are called in our house, “Maybe They’re Giants”) is going to catch our attention. NY Times language writer Ben Zimmer cites his son’s mastery of TMBG lyrics when he tackles fixed phrases in a recent articleMake yourself at home. He points out that:

Ritualized moments of everyday communication — greeting someone, answering a telephone call, wishing someone a happy birthday — are full of these canned phrases that we learn to perform with rote precision at an early age. Words work as social lubricants in such situations, and a language learner like Blake is primarily getting a handle on the pragmatics of set phrases in English, or how they create concrete effects in real-life interactions. The abstract rules of sentence structure are secondary.

Recent research into language acquisition is focusing on these fixed phrases or  “lexical chunks” – meaningful strings of words that we memorize:

Chunks may consist of fixed idioms or conventional speech routines, but they can also simply be combinations of words that appear together frequently, in patterns that are known as “collocations.”

Not everyone is sold on chunking for learning language. Zimmer cites the research of lexical-chunking critic Michael Swan:

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.” … Formulaic language is all well and good when talking about the familiar and the recurrent, he argues, but it is inadequate for dealing with novel ideas and situations, where the more open-ended aspects of language are paramount.

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