Chunking – Your New Best Friend

Chunking.  Looks like the name of a Chinese kungfuist from Tekken IV, huh?

But no.  Chunking is the process of breaking up information into chunks.

Essentially: unless you understand what they’re made up of, large pieces of information are hard to process and memorise.

For example: I added the following Mandarin sentence to Anki:


I picked this sentence as a nice example of the 因…而… construction.  However, to start with, I didn’t want to learn the sentence.


Because I’d not chunked the information enough: to start with, I was parsing the sentences like this:

電視   螢幕   因   天   線   接收   不良   而   模糊   不清。

(Spaces indicate where I was breaking up the sentence.)

This sentence, when parsed this way, has 10 components.  This makes it very difficult to memorise – there are lots of separate parts which aren’t obviously connected.

Additionally, I wasn’t really understanding the sentence.  For example, after some dictionary lookups and Google image searches, I discovered that 天線 is a TV receiver – not two separate items, as I’d originally thought*.

Additionally, I then decided that 天線 and 接收 were, in fact, a single item – 天線接收, ‘TV signal’. I then memorised it** as a single vocabulary item, rather than as three separate items.

Following similar analyses for 電視螢幕, ‘TV screen’ and 模糊不清, ‘very fuzzy’, I was able to re-parse the sentence as follows:

電視螢幕   因   天線接收   不良   而   模糊不清。

Now, the sentence is down to just five vocabulary items (因…而… counts as one split-up item), making it much easier to digest.

Furthermore, when parsed this way, it’s obvious that the sentence is, in fact, grammatically very simple:

電視螢幕   因   天線接收   不良   而   模糊不清。

(subject) – (noun) (adjective) – (adjective)

(‘-‘ indicates unspecified conjunctions.)

And now, I can write down the whole sentence from memory and say it out on command.

So, there you have it.  Spend a little time grouping up separate vocabulary items as chunks (天線接收 is one item, not three!) and you’ll 1) be able to memorise vocabulary and sentence patterns more quickly and 2) massively increase your comprehension speed.

Anyone else had the over-analysis problem?  If so, share in the comments section 🙂

* I think that for Chinese, there’s a danger of wanting to always break up items into their smallest components – it’s just such a logical language! – but this means that one may fail to really learn composite terms., even though the words formed thereof are vital to accurate language production.

** ‘Memorise’ means many, many repetitions. An arbitrary benchmark I’ve been using is being able to perfectly produce the item five times in a row before calling it ‘learnt’.

P.S: Here’s my page of notes that I made for this sentence, complete with pictures and (now memorised) dictionary definitions.



3 thoughts on “Chunking – Your New Best Friend

  1. Cheers very much for the link – I’ve actually seen it before! Our English Language teacher introduced it to us about 6 years ago, but perhaps I wasn’t in a positition to really understand it in the context of L2 language learning back then.

    I especially like points 1, 2, 5, 8 and 9:

    1. The grammar/vocabulary dichotomy is invalid.
    2. Collocation is used as an organizing principle.
    5. Most importantly, language consists of grammaticalised lexis – not lexicalised grammar” (ib.).
    8. The primacy of speech over writing is recognised
    9. A central element of language teaching is raising students’ awareness and developing their ability to “chunk” language successfully.

    Lots to chew on there! Thanks a lot! 😀

  2. Pingback: The Input Hypothesis and Various Fallacies #3 | Thousand Mile Journey

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