become conversant quickly by memorizing whole phrases and sentences - even short paragraphs - rather than focusing on routine vocabulary drills. Ben Zimmer, in a recent "On Language" column for The New York Times wrote about this phenomenon, which linguists call "chunking." That is, from the time we are small children, we are learning language by remembering "lexical chunks," or "meaningul strings of words that are committed to memory." This is why most English speakers say the tea is "strong" ("strong tea" is a lexical chunk) rather than "powerful," though either would make sense.
As an avid acquisitor of languages I believe in a two-pronged approach to language learning: I memorize idiomatic phrases, whole sentences, and even short paragraphs to help me recall more vocabulary in conversation, but I also take an old-fashioned approach to grammar and ordinary vocabulary drills. I do not believe that either approach is dispensable.
Let me extend my thanks to Harlan Collins, a fellow member of the Language Jobs discussion group on LinkedIn for drawing my attention to this piece. Here is the link to "Chunking," by Ben Zimmer: