How to use Chunking to Fire up your Language Learning Language Resources

The following post is a guest post from fellow language learner and musician Fiel Sahir. He came to me with this excellent idea on how to apply music study techniques to language learning and I just love what he came up with. 

So take it away, Fiel!


This is it.

Lots of crazy things going on in the world, so it’s time to bring in some positive energy. Let’s make 2017 something worth looking back on.

Losing weight is good, hiking up Everest is always prospect, as is finally getting to those cooking classes. There are always more ideas floating around than we realistically have time for. It’s hard to know what to choose.

Already, it’s February. There’s a pretty good chance that so far, you’re not quite where you want to be with your goals for the new year. Kinda frustrating, isn’t it?

Maybe trying to tackle Mandarin from scratch was too difficult, and now it’s crunch time at work. All those characters! UGH! If only the boss was more lenient so that you’d have a bit more free time. Or maybe you were still just wishing you had a better plan or strategy.

As humans we often tend to think too big. We love to dream about end results as if they were as easy as picking an apple off a tree. It’s easy to forget that there’s work that needs to go on behind the scenes to make those end results a reality.

I’m not saying goals and resolutions are bad. Not at all. It’s a sign that you are a responsible individual and that you want to take charge of your life! The world needs people like you.

The problem is that these goals are often too big.

As the days roll by, life happens. You’ve find your progress up that mountain has halted and you’re frustrated about why you aren’t at the peak yet. You start to wonder if you’ll ever arrive.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was an easy way to learn languages?

What makes ordinary people do great things is not because they themselves were great. Rather, it’s all about how normal people tackle great adversity.

If you’re short on time, and want to get to the specifics there’s a detailed video explaining how things work in this post.

What in the world is chunking?

I’ll let you in on a secret: Just doing something repetitively won’t solve your problems.

Instead, you need to be more mindful of how you spend your study time and develop a series of tactics that work for you. Chunking is a technique that musicians use and I’ve also found it useful in language learning and it may be the right choice for you.

For those of you unfamiliar with chunking, it is the practice of breaking things down into bitesize pieces. Whether you like it or not, your brain can only process a limited amount of information. You cannot absorb everything at once. But if you give it breathing room, the brain can absorb more effectively.

Let’s say you want to go to the US for college. It’s tempting to throw up your hands in desperation exclaiming, “OH MY GOD. I HAVE TO LEARN ENGLISH!!” While that may be your current mountain, take a breath. Do what Benny Lewis the Irish Polyglot does instead:

“Today I need to learn how to introduce myself. Tomorrow I’d like to order a coffee. Hmm… maybe I’d like to talk with a waitress at a café today.”

See how much less pressure that carries? You can even go further still!

You might find something similar to the following dialogue in your course book:
Jack: Hey! My name’s Jack. Where are you from?
Ann: Oh, hi! I’m Ann. Nice to meet you! I’m from Seattle.
Jack: Nice… I’m from Nebraska. It’s a pretty cold place. I hear Seattle gets TONS of rain!

Let’s say this is your first ever English dialogue. What the heck is Nebraska? After looking it up, you breathe a sigh of relief. It’s just a place name.

You naturally read it over and over again from beginning to end and soon find the rhythm in your voice. After having done that multiple times, you realize it’s not sinking in as well as you hoped. You look at it and shake your head thinking, “How can I learn this in the most efficient way possible?”

Simple Repetition isn’t the Answer

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Unknown but falsely attributed to Einstein

I recently sat down with a polyglot friend over Skype who wanted some guitar advice before he recorded a video for YouTube.

One of his enduring questions was, “Do you ever get stuck in a song and then have to play from the beginning all over again? I never seem able to just pick up where I messed up!“

I then asked him how he was practicing, and therein lay the answer.

For anyone who’s studied music (particularly classical), this is a problematic reality. Many people look at sheet music and “practice” by playing from beginning to end.

While a Freshman at the New England Conservatory, that was my routine. I thought, as long as I spent two hours on this piece everyday, it would get better. Two hours of putting something on repeat and stopping to fix mistakes only once as you plow through doesn’t do much. Why? Because you’ll only make them again. You’re not giving your brain enough time to process and reprogram what you’ve learned.

Just as you can learn to play the right notes, you can also program yourself to play mistakes. And…

Mistakes don’t fix themselves. If they do, it’s never at the speed you need or want. This problem plagues everyone from the amateur to the seasoned professional. Music is enjoyable and it’s easy to get lost in it.

“Playing is simply intoxicating!” – Adam Holzman, Classical Guitarist and Pedagogue

One of the problems many musicians face is relying too much on muscle memory. On the other hand, language learners focus too much on the script in front of them. After spending a good amount of time with the music or text you begin to feel pretty great.

The reason is, no one is there to judge but ourselves.

Then comes the moment when you have to practice in front of our language partner or tutor. Half a sentence leaves our lips, and then our nerves kick in and you forget the rest. This happens multiple times within one session. It’s pretty embarrassing!

Everyone has problems and challenges. Nothing new. How you address them, especially through chunking will change everything.

Building better “practice” habits.

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” – Doug Yeo former BSO Bass Trombonist

Being a Classical Guitarist by trade, these are techniques I’ve learned over the years that push me in the right direction. I’m in the business of having to learn music for concerts and competitions. Without these ideas, I’d end up just playing my pieces over and over again.

What I’m about to describe is invaluable information. It’s the behind-the-scenes work of professional musicians and actors. It’s how they perfect their craft. I’m sure Shannon can attest to having used these techniques herself.

1. Take it slow, phrase by phrase.

Ignore the temptation is to take it in all at once. Don’t forget the brain can only process a certain amount of information.

As you look at a dialogue, feel the words in your mouth, and the weird shapes and sounds of this new language. Give your body time to adjust. It’s like stretching into a new yoga pose.

Maybe your accent is really bothering you and you’re not sure how to fix it. There is hope!

I highly recommend Idahosa Ness’ MimicMethod or Gabriel Wyner’s Pronunciation-Trainers. What makes them work is the musical philosophy behind their methods.

“If you can’t hear it you can’t imitate (pronounce) it.”

2. Prioritize.

Scratch out words you do know and circle ones you don’t.

Take charge by deciding what is priority and work with that. Knowing how to say “Nice to meet you” is much more important than knowing what Nebraska is.

Sorry Nebraskans…

3. Drill it again and again.

Although it may sound like it, I’m not saying you shouldn’t do repetitions.

What makes musicians learn music quickly is by changing how you repeat! Artists make it fun and useful. Keeping it varied also helps avoid burn-out.

Try the following options:

  • Read a phrase syllable by syllable.
  • Again, but this time In different rhythms or speeds.
  • Use what opera singers and actors call “back-chaining.” Back-chaining is the practice of going backwards and building up a word one syllable at a time. (More on this in the video.)

4. Record yourself at normal speed to listen to and identify problems.

After practicing something for awhile it’s easy to feel proud of yourself. Sometimes you might even feel as though you can take on the world.

The fix for that is recording yourself. Why?

Once you hit the record button, something clicks. You’ll be making mistakes you’ve never made before and it’ll show you what to improve. Being under stress no matter how small, produces changes in performance.

Speaking of which, Lindsay Does Languages is doing what’s called the Instagram Language Challenge (#IGLC). I can tell you from personal experience that it’s nerve wracking. So why do I still do it? Because afterwards, I can evaluate my mistakes and fix them! The other participants are also quite helpful in correcting any mistakes. And best of all, it’s FREE.

5. Practice again with these new ideas

Review the various points as well as the video. As you wrestle with the ideas I’ve shared with you, adjust them to how you learn best. Our goal is to turn you into a highly effective independent learner.

6. Go public!

Assuming you haven’t already done this step, going public sets you up for accountability. When people are watching what you’re doing, you’re less likely to slack off.

One last idea. Never be afraid to keep asking for a second opinion. When you let others check your progress, you’ll find that their insight is priceless.

Now, enough theory. Go practice!

There’s a lot of information here in this post, so feel free to come back to it whenever you’re feeling stuck.

For now, get out there and apply what you’ve learnt today. Whether it be language learning, cooking, music practice, it’s time to do things better.

Here’s to a productive 2017!

Want more tips on language learning from a musical perspective? Be sure to check out Fiel’s presentation at the Polyglot Gathering in 2016.

Tips for Language Learning | Eurolinguiste



I’m a language lover, traveler and musician sharing my adventures and language learning tips over at Eurolinguiste.

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