How To Master A Foreign Language Using The Chunking Method

How To Master A Foreign Language Using The Chunking Method

Today I’m going to share a video with you demonstrating one of my simple, routine methods for learning any language.

This is a highly effective strategy that will push you toward native-like fluency in a way that does not involve tedious grammar rules or hours of wasteful book study and is therefore something that the majority of us with work or family commitments can manage around a busy schedule.

I talked about my own approach here but I’ll sum it up again for you:

You don’t need to study grammar to learn a foreign language.

Grammar rules are there as a guide to help improve literacy skills (reading and writing) in a language that you’re already a fluent speaker of. You learned the grammar of your native language several years AFTER becoming a fluent speaker of it.

The language we speak is just a collection of unoriginal chunks that we plug in like lego blocks to form new sentences. These can be single words, expressions or whole sentences.

We hear and learn these chunks as a series of sounds and intonations from infancy – like the lyrics of a familiar song – we recognize it instantly when we hear it and after enough exposure are able to reproduce it effortlessly.

The more you try to cram, the less you’ll learn. Small amounts at a time is key.

What I’ve demonstrated in this video is especially useful if you’ve finished all the foundational stuff and are stuck on a learning plateau. It’s one of the most frustrating places when learning a language as it can often feel like you’re not moving forward anymore.

The point I make toward the end of the video is vital in terms of the content you choose to work with too:

Make sure you understand most of what you’re reading or listening to and don’t work with content that you don’t enjoy.

For anyone interested, the book I’ve used in this video is from the Kalimni ‘Arabi series (I wrote about it here) and it ranges from beginner through to higher advanced level.

If you find this video useful or interesting, let me know in the comments section below and I’ll continue to make more.

The best way you can support this blog is by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter or StumbleUpon (only takes a few seconds using the share buttons below the video). 🙂

This was written by Donovan Nagel.

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Here's what you should read next:

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Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Icelandic


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Scott B

I'm an English teacher in Taiwan and this is kind of quite similar to a method we were taught from our head office training week called 'substitute drilling'. I also use this method with my own language learning by doing this with sentences I have put into Anki.

The trick is to find as many ways as you can change the sentence. For example if the sentence was in English
'Steve catches fish on his boat every weekend'.

You could ask multiple questions about the sentence. Like 'Who catches fish?, Where does Steve catch fish?, What does Steve catch? When does he catch fish? Why does he catch fish? (if this information is included in the sentence).

From here you can then turn the sentence into a negative: 'Steve doesn't catch fish on his boat every weekend.' or a question 'Does Steve catch fish on his boat every weekend?' From here you can trying substituting the subject, the object, the verb, the place or the time.

Obviously some sentences can be warped in more ways than others but you can usually transform every sentence at least a few ways.

I look forward to hearing you talk about more ways a sentence can be manipulated, in case I haven't thought of any.


Hey Scott!

Some good examples there and you're right.

This approach is actually adapted from a communicative ESL methodology that has been proven time and time again to be the most effective approach for English learners.

As you've highlighted too, even though you may only be focused on one sentence at a time, in actual fact the many "manipulations" that you can come up with mean that it's a lot more than one.

I'll use more examples in Korean with my next video.

Jessie L

Hi Donovan,

Firstly, thank you very, very much for this wonderful site. I am really enjoying exploring this treasure-trove of language-learning information!

Above, you mention "a communicative ESL methodology that has been proven time and time again to be the most effective approach for English learners".

Is this approach "The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis" that you mention below? If not, would you please post some details about said communicative ESL methodology?

Thank you very much in advance,



Interesting video. Thanks or the tip about Audacity.
I really would like to learn Korean (mostly because I love Korean Dramas and music, not because I'll ever get to visit the country) but every lesson I find online seems to just focus on the Hangul Alphabet. And each video seems to have a different way of pronouncing the letters. Any tips on where to look for help?
I'm so jealous of you I'm Irish and I only know a tiny bit of it.


Hi Sandra.

Thanks. Have you thought about getting back into your Irish again? It's never too late! :)

There's actually loads online for Korean. The most popular resource and one I highly recommend is Talk To Me In Korean. I advise people to skip over the grammar explanations and focus on the dialogue examples they provide in their lessons. The work they're doing is phenomenal and I've learned so much from them so far.

Scott B

Do you know of any good online resources about chunking? I'm interested in reading into this method further.


There are quite a few academic articles around if you Google "lexical approach".

Or you could get a copy of The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis which is excellent (there's a book that discusses the theory behind it and another one that talks about how to use it in the ESL classroom called Implementing The Lexical Approach -

In terms of using the approach for autodidactic learning of foreign languages like I am, I'm not sure if it's been talked about much elsewhere.


I understand what you're saying and agree, I think what you mean when you talk about "singing" the language is incorporating the same vocal tonality (and even body language and facial expressions, if you have that information) as the native speaker, and you're absolutely right to do that because those are MASSIVELY important, that is they account for a large portion of what's being communicated, a large portion of the actual meaning of what's being said. The words themselves can sometimes count for surprisingly little when take account of everything (words, facial expression, tonality, body language).

And, again, I couldn't agree more about using material that YOU find enjoyable and interesting, I think that's the most important factor in learning a language, making sure the process itself is enjoyable and interesting.


Aaron Spurling

This was an extremely interesting video. As I watched it, several questions occurred to me:

1. For how long do you continue working with a particular sentence before moving on to a different sentence? A day, a week, a month?

2. Is there an optimal number of sentences one should work with at a given time?

3. Do you have a set routine for the kinds of modifications to make to a given sentence? E.g., a certain number of word substitutions, followed by a certain number of transformations of the sentence into questions, etc.

I'm sure other questions will occur to me as I use this method, but these will suffice for now.

Thank you,
Aaron Spurling


Great video!
I saw something like this on Youtube from Glottika. Very practical and impressive.


Great video. Thanks for it, and thanks for the links and references in your comments, which I'll follow up.

This chunking is very similar to "The Mastery System," by Thomas Prendergast, a 19th century polyglot who was a contemporary of Mezzofanti. You may enjoy reading some of his books, if you haven't already. I'd recommend the general book and the one about Latin. (A non-grammar approach to Latin!) He tends to wander, but bear with him (i.e., keep rereading the introductions) and you'll probably find him very worthwhile.

He comments on Mezzofanti a few times in _The Mastery Series_.

About audacity. If you highlight in situ the selection that you wish to repeat (L-MOUSE + drag, in Windows), each time you depress the spacebar the selection will repeat from the beginning. If you depress SHIFT + SPACEBAR, the selection will loop. That way a separate file is not necessary.


I’ve always supported learning and practicing set phrases in context. In my opinion vocabulary should be learned and practiced first through input (listening and reading), and then used through output (speaking and writing) on each real life topic. But vocabulary is a broad concept; it includes not only phrases, but also separate words, idioms, proverbs, sayings, etc.

My idea below may be important to you to improve your language materials.
As you know word combinations in speaking are unpredictable. There are different word collocations/phrases and synonyms to convey a thought in a language.

It’s possible to encompass in ready-made materials a wide variety of phrases for each conversation topic. It is a good idea to prepare a potential list of phrases with sentences on each conversation topic, for example fixed conversational phrases that do not require English grammar knowledge (greetings, forms of addressing a person, thanks, well-wishing, apology, agreeing, disagreeing, emotions, etc.). Practicing with such materials can help a learner easier choose the most appropriate word combinations to convey a thought. Multiple frequent reading of such sentences will gradually ensure firm memorization of vocabulary and contribute to developing good speaking skills.

By combining the most inclusive phrase books, conversation books, general English thematic dictionaries, software, audio and video aids and websites you can create the most practical and thorough content for mastering each conversation topic in English for all levels including a wide selection of ready-to-use phrases, vocabulary and sentences for daily use. Your own ready-made materials could be superior to (more helpful than) any conversation book or a phrase book in terms of useful comprehensive content and vocabulary.

Amanda wang

Thank you so much for this video. I have been very frustrated with my goal of learning japanese. I love japanese anime and culture (Korean too, may be I will tackle that after japanese) I'm going to try your tip. I'm Taiwanese, but grew up in South America, and then moved to the us for college. I would consider that I'm fluent in all three languages but not to the level of true mastery. I don't have accents when speaking Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, perhaps a little when I speak English. I do enjoy learning languages so the two new goals I have set for myself is to first deepen my knowledge in the languages I know, second, learn japanese to the level of my other three languages. The main challenge is that for my previous languages, I have always had a true immersion environment which I don't have now, so I have been very frustrated feeling like I'm not making much progress. So again thank you for your video and blog, it has rekindle my hope to continue my quest.

Mariusz Pisarski

Thanks a lot for this simple but amazing tips how to learn any language :) very motivational and I hope it helps me with my English.
I've been learning English for 5 years but I feel like I'm not making any progress even though
I'm doing advance level at school and this year I'm planing to do my final exam which C2 in English.

Thank you Donovan


Thanks Donovan - inspiring video!


Hey! Just came across this video as someone linked it on reddit. I do something very similar to this with my Spanish with podcasts from Radio Ambulante, however I take it a bit further, a bit like you mentioned in the post. I cut up the podcast into manageable chunks then create cards in Anki with the audio on one side and the transcript (+ smaller English translation) on the other. It's helped me in both improving my accent and listening comprehension


Donovan, you share many of the ideas of Stephen Krashen. Have you written about him on your blog anywhere?


I would like to ask if you have any materials to learn English through chunks. Any short dialogues or videos which I could listen and also I think it is important that would be helpful if someone could explain particular chunks. Because I can find some dialogues on Youtube but for me where English is my second language it is difficult to find out which phrases are actually chunks. Do you have materials like that? Made by you or someone e


Donovan, I found this video from a link in your blog about koine and modern greek. I am a homeschool mom currently teaching Latin and plan to continue in hopes of better understanding the English language and hopefully ease the process of learning certain foreign languages in the future. I want to encourage a love of learning foreign languages to better connect with our own language, history, and a variety of people. So, as I look to the future I find myself drawn to Greek. My kids are still young, but was thinking of introducing the Greek alphabet next year as a gentle introduction. Play around with it for a few years and if my children show an interest, dive deeper. My question is this: I recently discovered a book that would help me accomplish this goal. A fun, exciting way to learn the alphabet by cracking codes and solving a mystery. In reading reviews I learned the book teaches Koine Greek. Would you recommend finding a modern Greek alphabet as to not confuse further Greek studies or does it matter if that is all they learn for the moment? Just something to whet their appetite? And maybe you would say it depends on the purpose for learning Greek. My understanding of koine vs modern is that Koine is what was used in the Bible as it was the language used during the Roman Empire and Modern is more communicative. So speak with other Greek speakers, modern is the way to go. Am I understanding these correctly?


I appreciate your honest reviews of language learning
Thank you


So a year 2020 comment! Your technique sounds very similar to the "FLR" method. Although I'm not sure which came about first, nor if one one used the other to grow off of. If you haven't heard of this method, I would like your input about it and how your technique differs.

Thank you

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Helena Weaver

Hi Donovan, pleased to read this old blog of yours, as I do something similar. To make it more efficient I’d suggest you move your audio file into a music manipulation app like AudioStretch which allows you to endlessly play a loop off whatever section you are interested in, even if it’s only one syllable, or if it’s part of a sentence, etc.

Joseph B.

Hey Donovan I was watching the video and chunking seems great but I have a question about how many sentences do you learn a day? Do you just focus on one or do you do two or three? I read another one of your articles that warned against overflowing your short-term memory with new words or sentences, so what the limit for you with this technique?

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein