Linguistic Chunking

By Lauren Carter

I hope you’ve been having a lovely week so far. Today I want to talk to you about a concept called “chunking”. If you’re not sure what this is, don’t worry – all will be revealed soon, my friend! This is a really simple technique that you can start using right now to help your low English literacy students easily understand what you’re saying.

What chunking is and why it’s important

If you’re at all familiar with language and grammar, you’ll know that what we say and write isn’t just a garbled mess of words . . . although sometimes it can feel like that 😉. When we communicate, what we say or write is broken up into parts called clauses. Clauses are basically the building blocks we use to form speech and writing. Here’s some examples of clauses:

  • My dog Barley chewed up the book I was reading.
  • Peanut butter is God’s gift to humanity.

Clauses are made up of parts called phrases. Here’s those clauses again, but I’ve marked the phrases with square brackets:

  • [My dog Barley] [chewed up] [the book I was reading].
  • [Peanut butter] [is] [God’s gift to humanity].

And of course, phrases are made up of words. In linguistic terms, a word refers to the letters or sounds that represent one thing or entity. So, even though peanut butter can be thought of as two written words because there’s a space between them, in linguistic terms it’s actually only one word because it refers to one thing. Better have your morning coffee before trying to work THAT one out! 😉 ☕

So, what exactly is chunking? Well, chunking simply means grouping certain words together and pausing between each group when speaking. To be more technical, it means pausing between each phrase when you speak.

From my experience learning Mandarin and studying linguistics, we process language as chunks rather than individual words. Whenever I don’t understand something in Mandarin, I find it’s because my brain wasn’t fast enough to process a chunk before moving onto the next chunk.

For example, if someone said to me in Mandarin “When I was at the supermarket last night, I bought some salted caramel chocolate for you because I know you like it so much”, I would want (and need!) them to pause for a second or two between each main phrase so my brain could catch up and fully comprehend each part. For example, I’d have a better chance of understanding if I heard this:

When I was . . . at the supermarket . . . last night . . . I bought . . . some salted caramel chocolate . . . for you . . . because I know . . . you like it so much.

Now my friend, I know you might be thinking to yourself “Well, duh, Lauren! This is the same as slowing down. This isn’t rocket science!” . . . and you’d be right about one of these – it ain’t rocket science! 🚀

How to chunk it up the right way!

Chunking isn’t as simple as merely slowing down. Yes, when you chunk your speech into phrases, you’ll naturally slow down, but chunking is only effective when you pause at the right spots. I know it seems like it might be helpful, but pausing after every. Single. Word. Like. This. Isn’t helpful to anyone at all. In fact, it actually makes your language harder to process for your student, so you end up spending more time trying to get your meaning across.

To be a successful chunker* you should do the following:

  • Think about the phrases in your speech and work out where the natural boundaries are.
  • Pause for a second or two at these boundaries.
  • Don’t pause after every word.

As someone with an analytical brain and extensive training in linguistics, working out the boundaries between phrases comes naturally to me now. Don’t worry if you’re having trouble with this – I’ll be sharing some more tips over the next few weeks and months to help you work this out.

*Side note: isn’t English amazing? Chunker isn’t a “real” word, but you totally know what I mean! 😉

This Week’s Challenge

So my friend, my challenge for you this week is to start chunking your words into phrases and pausing between each of them. Use the above points to help you out.

If you’re a real language nerd like me, I’d encourage you to google “linguistics constituency tests” to learn more about working out phrase boundaries.

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