Formualic phrases
Learning in chunks

Bean counters often do not see the wood for the trees.
Bean counters often do not see the wood for the trees. | Photo: © complize –

When the subject of vocabulary comes up, learners tend to think of seemingly endless lists of individual words that need to be learnt by rote. In fact, however, the foreign language in question often features many formulaic phrases with specific meanings that are well worth looking at more closely, partly because of their cultural connotations.

Textbooks and student workbooks use terms such as multi-word expressions, colloquialisms, proverbs, phrasemes, light verb constructions, idioms and collocations to describe groups of words like “add fuel to the flames”. All these designations are covered by the generic term formulaic phrases: multipart set phrases that are described as formulaic because their individual components cannot be freely combined. They are frequently found in language, are tied to specific situations and have variously complex structures and concrete or figurative meanings. The following examples illustrate the diversity of such phrases.

to put a question  stuck between a rock and a hard place Is this seat taken?
platonic love to pull someone’s leg to shake with mirth
in the black razor-sharp images With kind regards
See you later! The early bird catches the worm.  

Recognizing formulaic phrases

It is not always easy to identify these phrases because learners tend to be fixated more on words. They need strategies that will help them recognize the multipart and set nature of the phrases. Having learners search for such expressions in texts can make a useful contribution to this: as part of reading comprehension exercises, learners browse texts for partner words that are closely connected to one another. First-language equivalents with a similar meaning can help learners find the phrases, especially when the individual components are not identical in the source and target languages. After all, from the viewpoint of another language – be it the learner’s mother tongue or a foreign language – it is particularly clear how specific vocabulary is.

From the viewpoint of English, the German phrase “Vorurteile abbauen” is a good example because the literal translation – i.e. “to break down a prejudice” – is not commonly used in English. It is especially important to sensitize learners to set phrases if the glossary in a textbook lists mainly individual words. Such glossaries encourage learners to cling to words – which is why it is all the more important to add formulaic phrases to their vocabulary. If these additional phrases are introduced in digital tools such as Quizlet, the improved glossary can be compiled jointly by the group. Adding images and links to texts and songs highlights set phrases within a text, thereby enhancing the learning effect.

The chunk approach

One practical means of applying one’s knowledge of formulaic phrases is the chunk approach: when learners attempt to construct their sentences out of individual words, they will end up speaking more slowly. By contrast, resorting to chunks will increase fluency. Chunks are automated ready-to-use linguistic constructions that are stored in our brains in their entirety. Remembering chunks is a more economical process as it requires less cognitive effort.

To firmly establish the target-language chunks in our memories, they must be treated and consolidated as entities during the learning process itself. Let us take the example of the German phrase “Herzlichen Glückwunsch”, meaning “congratulations”. A functional approximation is typical of the chunk approach. Learners practise using the phrase in a dialogue in situations in which they need to “congratulate someone on a particular occasion”, until it comes automatically following frequent repetitions. The learner then uses the phrase in a different context to consolidate the learning process. If learners associate the phrase with situations that are relevant to themselves, they will be more likely to remember it long-term. The grammatical form – the fact that the phrase appears in the accusative case – is ignored for the time being. Since the learners are remembering the entity as a whole, they do not need to know the grammatical rule. Of course, it is nonetheless important for them to learn the phrase correctly.

Cloze exercises in which one element of a formulaic phrase is missing are considered to be not particularly beneficial for the learning process. If at all, they may be suitable for monitoring learning progress. To consolidate their vocabulary, it is necessary for learners to see the entire phrase as an entity. Rather than cloze exercises, learners are given expressions in paraphrased form and then have to locate the respective phrases in the text. A controlled written or spoken activity-oriented exercise can prove productive in this context.

Anyone who takes a closer look may discover some cultural peculiarities. Anyone who takes a closer look may discover some cultural peculiarities. | photo: © harry+lidy - plainpicture

The cultural context

Once the learner is able to use the phrase automatically, an awareness phase then follows at a later date. Learners talk about the kinds of contexts or situations in which it is appropriate to use the phrase. If learners are told about the etymology of the phrase, this will not only foster the learning process but will also provide learners with information relating to the cultural history of the phrase. Studying such culturally-sensitive phrases thus also contributes to the development of intercultural competence. For example, engaging with the collocation “to shake hands” can provide information about the situations in which people in German-speaking countries typically shake hands.
The column to the right contains links to many exercises at different levels of proficiency. They are a good means of practising these and other set phrases. So without any further ado: on your marks, get set, go!


Barkowski, Hans/Grommes, Patrick/Lex, Beate/Vicente, Sara/Wallner, Franziska/Winzer-Kiontke, Britta (2014): Deutsch als fremde Sprache. (=Deutsch Lehren Lernen; 3). Munich: Klett-Langenscheidt.