On chunks and language learning

Ben Zimmer has a great column in today’s New York Times about chunking. A chunk is a fixed piece of language that frequently occurs in particular contexts to fulfill the same function. Zimmer gives examples like “make yourself at home” as well as Halliday’s classic observation that we drink “strong tea” but get caught in a “heavy rain” (and never “heavy tea” and “strong rain”).

In academic writing, chunking (or collocations, or fixed expressions) is essential for proficiency. In the last week, I’ve been teaching phrases like “yield reliable results”, “pose a threat to” and “raise an issue.” And it’s hard to imagine empirical research papers without clauses like “the results are statistically significant.”

There are several interesting implications of this phenomenon. Obviously, as Zimmer notes, language needs to be taught in chunks not as individual vocabulary items, and it is not even necessary to understand the grammatical structure of the chunk in order to use it, which further supports Halliday’s contention that grammar and vocabulary are just different ways of analyzing the same text. I remember learning the form “Je voudrais …” to make a polite request in my first year of French, long before I understood that this was a conditional verb.

But even more interesting is the somewhat philosophical conclusion that we are not romantic creators of language, but rather proficient users of linguistic formulae (Swales and Feak make a similar point in Academic Writing for Graduate Students). This has important consequences for the way we view plagiarism. We teach students to paraphrase source texts “in their own words,” but we know that the notion of “your own words” is a myth. Sophisticated writers also know that some phrases are in the “public domain” and are available to be re-used. Ultimately, there is a gray area between idiomatic writing and plagiarism, which we need to recognize when we teach the important skills of paraphrase and summary writing.

For my take on this topic, check out the three-part video presentation I made an UNC (you can also just read the PowerPoint slides!).