‘Chunking’: Does it work for Mandarin?

A few days ago during the daily hourly Twitter browse, I came across this article on fluentu.com:

Split It Up: The Top Technique for Learning Vocabulary in Another Language

The article told me about the concept of ‘chunking’, the idea being to put vocabulary into practise instantly by filing it away in your brain with related vocabulary and sentence structures. In essence, rather than memorising a word, memorise a ‘chunk’ of words to slip into your day-to-day conversations and writing.

At first, I was sceptical. Having written thousands of example sentences, I can’t say I remember many of them off by heart. But chunking seemed to offer something slightly different. So, did it work for me?

Of course, I don’t have the definitive answer to this. Everybody’s learning experience is different, from speaking to watching movies to writing your own diary in your target language. The most important thing is finding what suits you. But in the meantime, it’s wise to spread your wings occasionally and fly to greener pastures, and dip your toes into the alternative ponds of those greener pastures. Before I get too bogged down in metaphors, there are other factors to consider. My method isn’t exactly fair, as this blog will only be featuring one word, and I have yet to test whether the chunks are committed to my long-term memory. With that in mind, here’s how my half-hour of ‘chunking’ went:

My plan was simple. I would open my HSK textbook, look up the word in LINE online dictionary (sorry, Pleco, my phone is currently charging) pick the first word that I didn’t understand, and try out some chunking.

qin1shi2 侵蚀 (erode)

Hmm. Doesn’t seem too hard. At first. Until you think, is this only literal erosion? Can cliffs get 侵蚀ed? Can willpower? In accordance with the article’s recommendations, I looked for example sentences to break into useful, memorable chunks. Fortunately, LINE dictionary also has a selection of web-sourced sentences (http://ce.linedict.com/dict.html#/cnen/example?query=%E4%BE%B5%E8%9A%80&origin=entry&ref=%23%2Fcnen%2Fentry%2F2f3528fdaff34bf8a34cd9a3f502334c):

The first I came across was 土壤侵蚀使得森林遭到破坏 (The erosion of the soil is damaging the forest.)

Excellent. The first thing I think of when I think of erosion. Therefore, ‘soil erosion’ became my first chunk.

turang qinshi 土壤侵蚀 (soil erosion)

Brilliant. This was going better than I first imagined. And it also reminded me of the correct word for ‘soil’. The formula of ‘chunking’ was working! So I started to look for something a little more advanced.

LINE then listed: …侵蚀结果 as meaning ‘…is subject to erosion’, which I took as my next chunk. If you think about it, this phrase is interchangeable with countless nouns: cliff sides, deserts (especially relevant in the Beijing areas), buildings, etc. Already, I had the building blocks to a subject that is not only pretty scientific for a second language, but useful for a number of topics.

So what about something a little more figurative and poetic?

Well as it turns out, 侵蚀 can also be used to mean ‘eat away at’, as in English. For this reason, the word can also be used in a melancholy context, such as qinshi wo de neixin 侵蚀我的内心 (to prey on my mind).

This is a truly useful sentence. An exam? 侵蚀我的内心. Starting a new job? 侵蚀我的内心. Rent too high? 侵蚀我的内心. To my surprise, chunking was producing results almost instantly. Not only have I learned chunks to apply to advanced, professional conversations, but also to meaningful, emotional discussions.

Of course, I may have been lucky that my eyes fell on such an ambiguous verb as ‘to erode’. Nevertheless, it is hard to think of many verbs, nouns, and adjectives that would not produce useful results when undergoing to chunking treatment. The only instance I can think of that may be a little hard for the memory to keep a hold on is in the case of widely applicable words such as ‘sad’ or ‘bright’ or ‘and’.

Despite this, chunking is definitely not to be sniffed at. I can see myself applying it to new words as I plough my way through my HSK textbook. However, it may be a little time consuming to go through every time I learn a new word. Although, with dictionary apps close to hand, it wouldn’t be too taxing to maybe look up a few examples, depending on your time constraints. All in all, I will definitely continue with chunking, and, should the feeling take you, feel free to have an in-depth discussion with me on erosion any time.

Website/sources:

Original article on chunking: http://www.fluentu.com/blog/learning-vocabulary-in-another-language/
The LINE Dictionary entry on ‘erosion’: http://ce.linedict.com/dict.html#/cnen/example?query=%E4%BE%B5%E8%9A%80&origin=entry&ref=%23%2Fcnen%2Fentry%2F2f3528fdaff34bf8a34cd9a3f502334c
In 2010, Ben Zimmer wrote an article on covering chunking in more linguistic terms for the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/magazine/19FOB-OnLanguage-Zimmer.html

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