Only 3000 words make up 86% of the language we commonly use in speaking and writing (Longman Communication 3000). Most intermediate English-speakers already have this vocabulary; they also have learned the common grammatical structures (of which there are dozens.) Nevertheless, their ability to express themselves is very limited. What’s missing? Knowledge of 100s of 1000s of common lexical chunks – short phrases that combine with different words to create different meanings. To improve fluency, it is vital to begin to identify these common structures, expand your usage of them and incorporate them into your writing and speech.
What are Lexical Chunks?
A lexical chunk is a set phrase – a pair or group of words commonly found together or close to each other. These could be phrases such as “strong accent,” “Happy New Year” and “totally convinced” (phrases made up mainly of content words – nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs.) They could also incorporate function words (articles, prepositions, possessive adjectives, etc.) such as “by the way,” “on the other hand” and “out of my mind.”
Regardless of the vocabulary used, the main thing is that these chunks can be used in many contexts. For example, “sounds exciting” could be applied as follows:
- This course sounds exciting.
- Your job sounds so exciting.
- The company’s new plans sound like they will be exciting.
- His day didn’t sound very exciting.
Some phrases can change meaning depending on the other words combined with them. For example, let’s look at the chunk “pass the.”
- IDIOMS – Pass the mustard
- GO PAST – Pass the deadline.
- HAND TO SOMEONE – Pass the keys.
- GET APPROVED – Pass the minutes.
- MOVE THROUGH TIME – Pass the afternoon.
What is the relationship between lexical chunks and fluency?
Fluency depends more on having quick access to a variety of lexical chunks than it does on using an extensive vocabulary or a vast range of grammatical structures. That being said, many grammatical structures can also be lexical chunks, for example: “could have been,” “if I were you” and “will be going.” It makes sense, then, to teach grammar within the context of lexical chunks.
“It is our ability to use lexical phrases that helps us to speak with fluency. This prefabricated speech has both the advantages of more efficient retrieval and of permitting speakers (and learners) to direct their attention to the larger structure of the discourse, rather than keeping it narrowly focused on individual words as they are produced.” (Nattinger and DeCarrico 1992)
The basic approach is to begin to notice these chunks in texts and conversations. If you can attach an emotion or attitude, a picture or memory, to the phrase, you will be more engaged with the content which helps you retain the language. Then you can explore other contexts in which to apply them.