Conversation Based Chunking LangFest Presentation

In 2018, I was invited to speak about learning languages through Conversation Based Chunking™ at Langfest, the biggest language conference in North America.

So, in this video, you can watch the Conversation Based Chunking LangFest Presentation.
I had a great time, and the people at Langfest were so kind to record the talk and put it on YouTube!
I cover the whole Conversation Based Chunking Method, give plenty of examples in several different languages (Spanish, German, French, Italian,…).
At the end, there’s an interesting Q&A with audience members too.
Enjoy Conversation Based Chunking Langfest presentation!

The summary of Conversation Based Chunking Langfest Presentation

I started by contrasting the traditional “construction mindset” of learning languages by studying isolated words and grammar rules versus an “observation mindset” of noticing and learning chunks of language as native speakers actually use them. The construction mindset sets learners up for struggling to construct sentences and often feeling clumsy, while the observation mindset can lead to effortless, fluent conversations rolling off the tongue naturally.

Conversation Based Chunking Langfest Presentation title

I explained that a “chunk” refers to combinations of words that native speakers use as a unit with a particular meaning, rather than generating the combinations from grammar rules. Things like “call an election”, “by the way”, “on the other hand” in English or “avoir l’air” in French are all chunks. Even grammatically correct combinations like “merry birthday” can sound unnatural if it’s not a commonly used chunk in that language. (You can find these examples in different languages at the end of this summary!)

The key to naturally fluent speech is having these chunks properly “chunked” in your brain, rather than piecing sentences together consciously from words and rules. This chunking approach was called revolutionary by linguists like Michael Lewis in the 1990s, but is still unknown to many language learners.

I outlined my 5-step “Effortless Conversations Method” built around chunking:

  1. Getting comprehensible input through listening and reading
  2. Practicing listening comprehension, using transcripts to start
  3. Identifying and noticing chunks that native speakers use
  4. Actively imprinting those chunks in your brain through flashcards, mnemonics, etc.
  5. Implementing the chunks by speaking and having conversations

For step 3 of noticing chunks, I find parallel transcripts/translations invaluable to see how a native speaker formulates an idea compared to how I would construct it from words and rules. Context reverso is another great tool to see examples of chunks used naturally.

While getting enough comprehensible input is crucial, I don’t recommend just passive absorption. For chunks highly relevant to your goals, it’s very helpful to actively imprint them through spaced repetition flashcards or other memorization techniques.

For implementing the chunks in speech, it really does lead to that promised fluency and sentences rolling off the tongue naturally, rather than feeling clumsy and translated. It eliminates much of the mental burden of recalling grammar rules.

Of course, grammar explanations can still be useful after already learning and imprinting the correct patterns through chunks. But front-loading instruction with grammar rules is an ineffective path to fluency.

Adopting this “observation mindset” of a keen listener noticing how natives really express ideas, rather than trying to create sentences from scratch, is the key shift that can revolutionize one’s language learning progress.

To sustain it long-term, I recommend dividing your time between short, focused study sessions working with comprehensible input and imprinting chunks, alternated with longer “ambient” periods just exposing yourself to the language naturally through audio, video, reading, etc. This balance provides focus without overwhelming effort.

Overall, the Conversation Based Chunking method promises to make you understand and be understood naturally in conversations much faster than the isolated words + rules model, which tends to leave learners stuck perpetually translating in their heads. With enough exposure and the right observation mindset, you can acquire languages more like how children do – through meaningful chunks mapping directly to ideas, without the artificial step of grammar analysis.

Here are some examples of chunks in different languages that illustrate the concepts from the LangFest talk:

English Chunks

  • “How’s it going?”
  • “To call an election”
  • “By the way…”
  • “On the other hand…”
  • “To be struck by lightning”
  • “To book a table”

German Chunks

  • “Erzähl mal, gibt es bei dir etwas Neues?” (Tell me, is there anything new with you?)
  • “Ich hab’s dir doch gesagt.” (I told you so.)
  • Keine Ahnung.” (No idea.)
  • “Alles klar?” (Everything alright?)

French Chunks

  • “J’ai l’air” (I look/seem)
  • “Bon, en tout cas, voilà une bonne chose de faite.” (Well, in any case, there’s one good thing done.)
  • “Il y a toujours trop de monde en été.” (There’s always too many people in the summer.)
  • “J’ai beau essayer…” (As much as I try…)

Spanish Chunks

  • “Una persona un poco seria” (A rather serious person)
  • “Visito a mi abuela” (I visit my grandma)
  • “Por la noche” (At night)
  • “¿Qué tal?” (How’s it going?)

Italian Chunks

  • “Ti aspetto qui sotto” (I’m waiting for you downstairs)
  • “La macchina è parcheggiata a due passi” (The car is parked nearby/a short distance away)
  • “Andare al mare” (To go to the seaside)
  • “Sarà bel tempo” (It will be nice weather)

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