Should you study words individually or in chunks?

If you’re trying to learn vocabulary, should you study individual words or chunks of words?

What I do: Study both!

(By the way, some people say you shouldn’t make an effort to learn vocabulary words at all–that you should pick up words naturally during communication. But I firmly believe that at least a little dedicated vocabulary studying absolutely helps.)

Words, Lexemes, and Morphemes

Linguists have been at work trying to break down and label language into its smallest parts. Some examples of terms they’ve come up with:

  • Words
  • Lexemes
  • Morphemes

If you’re hardcore, you can click those links above and read the Wikipedia definitions of the terms. But honestly, I only skimmed those articles myself.

In my own way of looking at things, I like to use the terms “words” and “chunks.” I use the colloquial (not necessarily the scientific) notion of what a “word” is. And a “chunk” is a group of words. What these terms lack in precision they make up for in ease of use.

I’m not trying to denigrate the field of linguistics. It’s just that you don’t necessarily have to learn linguistics inside and out to learn a language, any more than you’d have to have a medical degree to play basketball.

My point in bringing this up at all is simply to say that maybe a word isn’t always a word. So your approach to learning words doesn’t always have to be the same.

The “What’s up?” example

When someone says to you, “What’s up?” you don’t take each individual word literally. Your brain definitely doesn’t process “what,” “is,” and “up” with each of their separate meanings, which is why you don’t respond by looking at the ceiling.

No, “What’s up?” consists of three separate words that function as a single unit. It’s what I’d call a chunk.

Oh, but that’s slang, you say. Well, how about the definitely-not-slangy equivalent “How are you?”

Native English speakers may think “How are you?” can be taken as a literal utterance. But to German speakers, for example, it doesn’t make sense. Consider this exchange I had in Germany with my neighbor’s second-grade daughter who came to the house to play with my dog and cat.

Me: Wie ist dein Vater? (Literally, How is your father?)

Her: Huh?

Me: Wie ist dein Vater?

Her with her face scrunched up: Wie ist er?

Me: Oh. Sorry. Wie geht es deinem Vater. (Literally, How goes it to your father?)

Her: Oh! Gut.

In English, asking “how” a person is barely makes sense, and in some languages it makes no sense at all. But we don’t even think twice when someone says, “How are you?” because those three words have taken on their own meaning in chunk form.

The Takeaway

Sometimes, a word functions fine by itself. Other times it functions as part of a chunk. You can go into the weeds with this as much or as little as you like, so I’ll leave it at that.

Additionally, sometimes you can remember a word just fine by itself. When I learn a list of fruit, for example, I don’t need any context to remember apple, banana, orange, etc. Other times a little context helps, especially for words that describe abstract or difficult concepts. The only thing I like to do is make sure my chunks are seven or fewer words, or else I’ll have a hard time remembering them.

When I’m learning new vocabulary and drilling flashcards, I’ll sometimes study individual words and other times study chunks. It depends on the situation and, honestly, my mood.

Ultimately, you don’t need to limit yourself to one approach.

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