Native speakers use lexical chunks, or groups of words commonly used together, without understanding what they are or how they work. Non-native speakers who master lexical chunks will sound more colloquial and assured when they speak English. With an understanding of lexical chunks, non-native speakers will be able to effectively use colloquial phrases that often do not mean the same thing when each word is individually defined.
Pay attention to how words work together when hearing or practicing sentences in English. According to Michael Lewis, who coined the term “lexical approach,” people learn and use languages as word combinations. Rather than emphasize only building vocabulary and learning grammar rules, Lewis suggests that collections of words that work as a unit drive communication, making lexis, not grammar, the key to understanding how the English language operates.
Follow Lewis’ language learning model: observe, hypothesize and experiment. Taking note of the kinds of words that commonly appear together will prevent the English learner from saying or writing sentences that may be grammatically correct, but still sound awkward. For example, native speakers would remark about a particularly “strong tea,” not a rugged one, even though “strong” and “rugged” are synonyms. Learn collocations, or word partnerships, like “broad daylight” or “by heart” by hypothesizing what they mean from context. Then, experiment using these collocations in sentences.
Focus on the use and placement of nouns in English sentences. Use a dictionary for unfamiliar words, but think of their use, not simply their definition, in relationship to the sentence’s central nouns. Read materials about the same subject matter to discover common collocations used to discuss that topic. Read for word patterns, not simply for subject-verb agreement or other grammar rules.
Read newspapers or sit in public places like a coffee shop to see and hear everyday English in use. Use a note pad to write down familiar collocations. Follow the nouns and use context to guess what unfamiliar words might mean. Check unfamiliar words in a dictionary later. Practice writing new sentences using these collocations in different ways.
Watch and record news programs and comedies. Write out the words spoken as if providing a transcript. Take note of how the nouns anchor the lexical chunks used. Pay particular attention to how lexical chunks produce comedy, often through puns or misuse of a phrase. The word associations that produce laughter often mean quite different things when broken apart.
- British Council BBC Teaching English: Lexical Approach 2 — What does the lexical approach look like?
- The New York Times Magazine: Chunking
- "The Lexical Approach"; Michael Lewis; 1993
Based in New York City, Seth Silberman has written and edited articles for various websites since 2006. His articles have been published in numerous books and scholarly journals as well as in "VIBE" magazine, "Paste" magazine, "Creative Loafing Atlanta" and "The Hartford Courant." Silberman holds a Doctor of Philosophy in comparative literature from University of Maryland, College Park.