Conversation Based Chunking™ Explained
Learn to speak any language naturally like a native through the power of observation and chunking - no grammar drills or word lists required!
Tip: Learning Spanish? Then read the version of this mini-training adapted to Spanish. There are some free Spanish resources in that training as well 🙂
So, what is Conversation Based Chunking™?
Well, Conversation Based Chunking™ is the method I developed for learning any language without memorizing isolated words and grammar rules.
It’ll be especially helpful for you if:
If you were nodding in agreement (and maybe some frustration) while reading the previous statements, thinking “That’s ME!” then yes: this learning approach is perfect for you 🙂
Basically, there are 3 key concepts that make Conversation Based Chunking™very different from traditional language learning methods:
Observe, Don't Invent
Don’t build clumsy, unnatural sentences by translating in your head from your mother tongue. Use the Power of Observation and Chunking to to identify patterns in what native speakers say– and have fluent, native-like sentences roll off the tongue without resorting to guesswork.
Use Conversational Learning Materials
Apply Chunking to Conversational Learning Materials (e.g. dialogues), not written language. That will help you understand native speakers, and see how they speak (and how you should too). From the very beginning!
Learn In Fast-Paced 12-Week Cycles
Structure your language learning around 12-week cycles (I call them 12-in-12 Challenges) to install solid habits that make progress consistent and inevitable.
I’ve created the whole method with one goal in mind:
To help you make more progress in your target language in the next twelve weeks than you have done in the whole of the previous year.
1000+ students in 60+ countries have learned languages like German, French, Spanish, Italian, English, Russian, Japanese, Chinese and many others with the method.
And on this page, you’ll discover how it can help you to get to fluency faster too.
Note: This page will give you a quick introduction to the method. For a more in-depth explanation and step-by-step plan to start learning with Conversation Based Chunking™, I recommend you get a copy of the Effortless Conversations Book. Get more info here:™
Table of Contents
Stage 1: From Constructing to Observing: The Power of Observation and Chunking
How a traditional Construction Mindset is setting you up for language learning failure
Most language learners (and teachers) have it backwards when it comes to language learning.
They think that, to learn a language, you need to start by learning lots and lots of words.
Then you learn grammar rules so you can piece together the words in somewhat coherent sentences.
And if you just learn just enough words, and you internalize grammar rules and do your exercises… then one day, you’ll magically speak your target language like a native speaker?
Well, as you can probably attest if you’ve ever tried to learn a language this way, it can take a long time to reach a comfortable, native-like level. In fact, most people who use this “sentence construction approach” always keep translating in their head and never stop feeling clumsy while speaking their target language, no matter how much they’ve been practicing.
I should know! I studied German at university for four intensive years, but even after all that time, my classmates and I were still struggling to speak and hold a decent conversation in German. Embarrassing, right?
Studying at university wasn’t all bad, though. Because in my last year, during my MA in interpretation, I was introduced to another way of learning a language, that taught me to stop guessing how to say things with words and grammar, to stop translating in our head, and say the things native speakers say.
From clumsy constructor to astute observer
So how did that happen?
I was doing German-Dutch interpretation training at the time. Now, every time we uttered a sentence in German during our training, our interpretation professor would stop us and say:
“Yes, Germans would understand you. But is that really how they would say it themselves?”
And of course, most of the times it wasn’t.
Because as with most language students, we were simply translating in our head from our mother tongue into German by combining the words we knew with the grammar rules we’d crammed.
Then, instead of letting us create sentences ourselves, our professor asked us to listen, read, and observe native Germans while they were taking part in natural conversations.
Then, he told us not concentrate on the individual words or the grammar rules, but on the way native Germans combined the words in certain fixed expressions, phrases, how they used prepositions, and how they reacted to each other during the conversations.
We were not listening just to understand native speakers, we were listening for the exact word combinations they were using.
Once we’d trained our ears and eyes for this, we’d often have a “Eureka moment,” where we thought,
“Oh, so that’s how a native German speaker would say this!”
These revelations were often followed by the sobering realization we had always been using a clumsy equivalent, translated directly from our mother tongue, which might have done the trick to make ourselves understood, but that was all.
However, one thing was certain: with our knowledge of words and grammar rules, we could never have said it so elegantly!
Whenever we came across such a phrase, expression, or word combination, our teacher would have us learn that full word combination by heart, even—and especially—if we didn’t understand the grammar behind it. We’d do this instead of memorizing more word lists or glossaries.
Fluent, more natural, and more native-like sentences started rolling off the tongue, because we now knew exactly how to say things. After all, we weren’t guessing anymore—we’d just heard or read it in a conversation.
As a result, we became more confident that we really spoke a language in a natural way, instead of constructing something that merely sounded like German.
What I learned that year in university became the basis of the concept of Conversation Based Chunking™.
At the core of this system is a concept called “chunks”.
You see, with the exception of content words like apple or dog, most words by themselves don’t have any useful meaning. These words only become meaningful in a conversation when they’re connected to other words.
And, contrary to what you might think, you don’t have isolated words and a set of grammar rules in your memory. If you had to think of words and grammar rules every time you utter a sentence, you’d stumble and hesitate all the time, even in your mother tongue.
Instead of single words, you already have word combinations in your brain, and these are not the combinations you make by applying grammar rules to isolated words.
I’m talking about what linguists call chunks: word combinations with a specific meaning that are always, or very often, used together and that you don’t even think about as separate words.
Chunks are word combinations with a specific meaning that are always, or very often, used together and that you don’t even think about as separate words
These chunks are stored in your brain as patterns, which are reinforced every time you hear them. When you want to use a chunk, it just rolls off the tongue, without you having to think about the grammar.
Your memory contains a network of such “chunks” which you naturally combine into sentences. They exist in all languages, including your mother tongue. This is why you don’t need to know all grammar rules in your mother tongue and can still speak it naturally, without thinking.
For example, if you’re a native English speaker, you say things like:
- how’s it going
- by the way
- call an election
- bring someone up to speed
- call a cab
without even thinking about it.
You wouldn’t bat an eyelid if you heard someone say, “Merry or Happy Christmas.” And if a friend wishes you, “Happy Birthday,” you hope to collect a present and give them a polite, “Thank you,” in return.
However, if the same person congratulates you by saying, “Merry Birthday,” you’d probably respond with a quick frown, thinking, “Hmm, that doesn’t sound right, he must be a foreigner.” Yet, grammatically there’s nothing wrong with saying, “Merry Birthday,” is there? It’s simply an adjective and a noun spoken together.
What’s the difference?
“Happy Birthday,” “Merry Christmas,” and “Happy Christmas,” are word combinations used frequently. Every native English speaker has heard and used them so many times that a strong connection has been forged between the words. When you hear them, the chunks sound familiar, and you can also use them without any hesitation.
For the same reason, Germans don’t have to think about whether they’re going to use a Nominativ, Dativ, Genitiv or Akkusativ.
This is why a sentence like, “Ich bin auf der Suche nach einer neuen beruflichen Herausforderung,” (I’m looking for a new professional challenge), simply rolls off the tongue for them.
On the other hand, most German language students have to remember full declension tables to string together every single word in that sentence.
Chunks also explain why native Spanish, French, and Italian speakers use the subjunctive automatically, without knowing any of the hundreds of rules someone studying French, for example, is usually asked to memorize to cover all possible usage situations.
Chunks are the reason why native speakers don’t have to memorize conjugation tables or think about verb endings when speaking—they are all simply patterns stored in the brain.
- una persona un poco seria
- me gusta mucho
- bailar salsa
- cada vez que
- Todo bien?
- überhaupt nicht teuer
- wesentlich weniger Geld
- vor zwei Jahren
- in Urlaub fahren
- auf jeden Fall
- qui sotto
- a due passi
- nel mio caso
- la sorella maggiore
- al momento
- ces derniers temps
- trop de monde
- en été
- en tout cas
- pour le moment
So what does this mean for you as a language learner?
When you start learning a foreign language, you have two choices.
- Firstly, you can use the same old system and start memorizing isolated words and grammar rules. Unfortunately, as discussed, you’ll probably struggle to make sentences and will feel and sound clumsy.
This awkwardness will continue until you have had so much exposure to your target language your brain stops thinking about the isolated words and grammar by itself and combines these chunks subconsciously.
In reality, most people never reach this stage, because people need an awful lot of exposure for this to happen.
- Secondly, and this would be my choice, you could skip this painful and usually unsuccessful step, move away from the “words combined with grammar” methodology, and start observing native speakers. You could train yourself to notice and memorize full chunks from the very beginning.
If you go for the second option, you will be able to produce fluent sentences that roll off the tongue from the very beginning, without any hesitation and with a lot less concern over grammar.
The science behind Conversation Based Chunking™
Let me quickly explain the science behind this approach to language learning.
In its purest form, the concept of chunking is based on what linguists call, “The Lexical Approach,” which is a way of language teaching popularized in the 1990s. It is characterized by a strong focus on “lexis” (words, word combinations, and the chunks we’ve talked about before), and a reduced focus on needing grammar to learn a language.
The Lexical Approach is supported by many heavy-weight linguists, the most famous of whom is Michael Lewis, and the process is being used by teachers around the world.
Still though, I believe the implementation of the lexical approach has failed in two important ways:
- It has always been highly focused on how teachers can incorporate this knowledge into their teaching methods and exercises, instead of showing language learners (like you) how to develop the chunking mindset and identify chunks yourself.
- It didn’t focus enough on the difference between “conversational chunks” (they things people say in conversations) and “written chunks” (the things people write). Because while the words in both might be the more or less the same, the chunks used are vastly different!
The real power of chunking comes from adopting the mindset of observing native speakers yourself in conversations and noticing chunks instead of single words.
Once you start doing this, you’ll see chunks everywhere, and you’ll start speaking much more naturally, as many students in my language learning programs have reported.
That’s why I’ve called this approach Conversation Based Chunking™.
Stage 2: The roadmap to effortless conversations
Taking into account everything we’ve talked about so far, let’s take a look at a step-by-step plan to use Conversation Based Chunking™ to achieve effortless conversations in any foreign language.
Quick recap: on a very basic level, to have effortless conversations you need to:
Step 1: Get Enough Input
You need get a lot of input: reading and most of all listening to native speakers, so you can practice your comprehension, and you get input to observe how native speakers speak.
Dialogues are good for this because they contain a lot of conversational language, with slang, idioms, and real interaction. Newspapers, novels and even blog posts are less suitable, because they’re not “Conversation Based“: they don’t show how native speakers actually speak. Case in point: look at a newspaper article in your mother tongue. Would you ever speak like that? 🙂
Nice side-effect: by observing so much, you’ll have much more cultural awareness as well. You’ll know what people say to each other, what they don’t say, the jokes they make, and so on.
Step 2: Improve your Listening Comprehension
In a second step, you improve your listening comprehension with all this input, so you get better at understanding native speakers. Here, you need to listen at full-speed, and preferably with a transcript. Even if full-speed audio feels ‘too difficult’.
Trust me: if you stick to it, listening at full speed with a transcript will bring you results MUCH faster than listening to slowed-down audio all the time.
Step 3: Identify (or Discover) Chunks
Then in the third step, you identify chunks in everything you read and hear: the word combinations that native speakers use and that make them sound so natural. These are the chunks you want to start using yourself.
Step 4: Imprint The Chunks On Your Brain
In the fourth step, you imprint these chunks on your brain so they can roll off the tongue. Just like with single words, you can use memorization strategies like flashcards and memory techniques to learn chunks.
The difference is that this time, you’re memorizing phrases that you can instantly use in conversations, whereas with single words, you’d still have to worry about building sentences from the ground up!
Step 5: Start Having Effortless Conversations
In the fifth step you start speaking, and you implement what you’ve learned. Yes, you’ll be having actual conversations… and the longer you follow these 5 steps, the more effortless they’ll become!
As long as you listen and read a lot in your target language, you make an effort to find and memorize chunks, and you then implement everything you’re learning in conversations, you’ll become more confident while speaking.
You’ll sound more natural.
It’ll become easier to understand native speakers.
And most of all: while learning, you’ll have the feeling that you’re actually learning a language, something used by native speakers, instead of an abstract programming language or puzzle made up of words and grammar rules!
Stage 3: Set yourself up for long-term success by learning in 12-week cycles
I hope you’re starting to see the power of using Conversation Based Chunking™ to get comfortable speaking foreign languages.
Still though, there’s one key ingredient missing (and it’s actually missing from most courses), because knowing how to learn a language alone won’t make you any more fluent!
Yep, you hear me coming: you need to implement.
You’ll need to choose learning materials, set up a study plan to work through them, AND stay focused over an extended period of time!
And let me tell you: reading about language learning techniques in itself won’t do that for you.
Buying a course in itself won’t do it.
Attending a traditional language class won’t do it for you either (because apart from giving you some homework, they don’t really tell you what to do on all the days you’re NOT sitting in the classroom).
That’s why setting up a solid language learning routine is a very important pillar of the Effortless Conversations Method.
In fact, I’ve spent the past few years following training by some of the world-leading experts in productivity and high-performance (among them, Eben Pagan and Olympic and billionaire mental coach Todd Herman) and used what I’ve learned to create a full support/accountability framework around the chunking method.
This framework is designed to help you “make more language learning progress in the next 12 weeks than all of last year”.
It’s called the 12-in-12 Challenge.
Well, because you’ll be learning for 12 weeks, and during these 12 weeks, you apply the chunking method to 12 native-speaker dialogues.
Now, listen: you won’t be completely fluent in 12 weeks. Any course that promises you that is lying.
But spending 12 weeks learning chunks and applying the full Effortless Conversations Method is long enough to see some pretty incredible progress.
What’s more: 12 weeks is long enough to install solid language learning habits that will serve you much longer than just 3 months!
12-in-12 Challenge: an overview of its structure
All our language courses are structured around such 12-in-12 Challenges. I’ll give you a brief overview of the main components.
- The Preparation Phase
- Know why/what you want to achieve
- Choose topics
- The Implementation Phase: 12 Weeks of Language Learning Fun
- Focused study sessions
- Exposure sessions
- Track progress
- Phase 3: The Big Review
- Look back at what you’ve learned!
The Preparation Phase
Know why/what you want to achieve
Before you even start learning a language in the 12-in-12 Challenge, you need to think about your language learning background. Take a look at which languages you’ve learned in the past. Which methods you’ve tried. What worked for you and what didn’t. What you’ve struggled with, and where your strengths lie.
Just sitting down, reflecting on this, and collecting the data will help you see what you’ve tried so far, what worked, what didn’t work for you, what you might have neglected, and what might need some extra work.
Once you have the answers to these questions, it’s time to look into the future and discover your vision: your big why. Consider the following:
- Why are you learning a language?
- What is your current level?
- Which topics would you like to learn about?
- How do you see yourself using your target language?
- In which of these situations do you see yourself use the new language: work; travel; tourism; family; (finding a) spouse or partner?
Create a “Serial Fluency List”
Based on these answers, you can then make a list of topics and situations in which you want to become confident, effortless, and fluent. I call this a Serial Fluency List because, ultimately, you’d like to become serially fluent in all these topics.To do this, you simply need to work on them one after another until you’re comfortable holding conversations on each of these topics. Of course, as a beginner, you can also take a course and learn about the topics outlined there; usually, many of these topics will be useful to you anyway 🙂
The Implementation Phase
As already discussed, your best bet for long-term language learning success is creating a twelve-week plan. This is long enough to make noticeable progress and build good habits, but not so long that your goal of fluency seems like a far-fetched dream.
During these twelve weeks, you’ll work with a limited set of learning materials.
Your twelve-week study plan has the following three components:
- Focused Study Time,
- Casual Exposure Time, and
- Tracking & Accountability.
Focused Study Time
During Focused Study Time, you sit down and make an active effort to learn your target language. You dive deep into a limited set of language learning materials and try to learn as much as you can from them, using the system described earlier. Ideally, you plan short Focused Study Sessions every day (or at least 5 times a week).
They shouldn’t take you longer than 20-30 minutes a day. Doing frequent short sessions is much better for learning and recalling information than doing one long session a week! Doing something every day is also better for habit-building.
Casual Exposure Time
During your Casual Exposure Time, you immerse yourself in your target language in a fun way. For example, you could:
- Listen to music, radio, or podcasts,
- Watch TV, movies, or videos on YouTube,
- Read novels and new articles,
- Talk with conversation partners, etcetera, or
- Do whatever you find interesting.
During this Casual Exposure Time, your focus is not on studying, not on learning grammar or vocabulary, but on having fun, on engaging with the language and the culture, and on getting used to the sounds, the rhythm, the flow. This is low-intensity immersion. You’re only doing things you enjoy.
Track your progress
Finally, it’s important that you track both your Focused Study Time and Casual Exposure Time, so you know your efforts are paying off and you’re focusing on the right activities. To do that, create a journal or a spreadsheet and write down every single day if:
- You’ve done a Focused Study Session, and if so, for how long;
- You’ve done any speaking, listening, reading, writing practice.
If you respond well to external accountability, you can also find an accountability partner who will check in on your progress. In the 12-in-12 Challenge, we also keep students accountable by putting them in a community, doing live calls with them and checking in with them over email.
The Big Review
If you’ve done a good job during these twelve weeks, you’ll have made some pretty incredible progress. Like Brian, a student of mine who used Conversation Based Chunking™ for ninety days, who learned one thousand chunks and made amazing progress.
During The Big Review, you might notice that, besides improved language skills, some other amazing things might have happened in your life. So, in The Big Review, look back on what you’ve accomplished, and check whether the following things have happened.
And that, my friend, is the full method!
Congratulations on making it to the end of this page! You’re now familiar with the key components of Conversation Based Chunking™.
Working on your target language in twelve-week cycles combined with chunking, the power of observation, and using conversational learning materials will make sure you’re set for great, long-term success in learning your target language.
If you’re ready to take things a step further, you have several options:
Get a copy of the Effortless Conversations Book
I’ve written an in-depth book on Conversation Based Chunking™ that goes into much more detail. I published it last September, and within the first two days it was a #1 bestseller in the Amazon US, CA and AU stores!
This is the best place to start if you want to learn more about the method: it contains more resources, case studies and also gives you access to a 12-in-12 Workbook that you can use to set up your own 12-in-12 plan.
Get more information about the book and some book reviews by clicking the button below.
Participate in a 12-in-12 Challenge
You can also take part in our language courses, called 12-in-12 Challenges, for German, Spanish, French and Italian. Since the first round started in March 2018, 500+ students from 60+ countries have already gone through a 12-in-12 Challenge.
In the 12-in-12 Challenge, you get learning materials, tutoring, coaching and training with other passionate language learners.
It’s the absolute best way to make amazing progress in your target language in just 12 weeks, and gain the habits and skills that’ll make lifelong language learning success possible for you.
The 12-in-12 Challenge is a course that comes with live coaching and an active community aspect, so we only open its doors periodically.
If you’d like to participate in one of our 12-in-12 Challenges, I invite you to click the button below to see whether we have any spots for your target language available.
And if you have any more questions about Conversation Based Chunking, the book or our courses, feel free to get in touch! Just click the chat button that you can see in the lower right corner of your screen 🙂