Metalinguistic Knowledge: A Deeper Understanding of Language

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by Melissa J. Enns

 

The concept of metalinguistic knowledge may be one many language teachers haven’t heard of before. However, it is implicit to many language-teaching practices, so perhaps it deserves more attention.

What is metalinguistic knowledge? A breakdown using the Online Etymology Dictionary reveals that “metalinguistic” comes from Greek meta, which in Latin took the meaning of being “higher” or “beyond,” and Latin lingua, meaning “language” or “tongue,” so that metalinguistic awareness may roughly be translated to “awareness of what is above or beyond language.”

As with many theoretical concepts, the exact meaning of metalinguistic knowledge is somewhat nebulous. I am going to attempt to define it and comment on its usefulness in language classrooms.

To begin, it should be noted that metalinguistic knowledge tends to be used synonymously with metalinguistic awarenessunderstanding, activity, and others (Myhill & Jones, 2015). Even though subtle differences are implied by the choice of noun, the literature tends to treat them as synonyms, and so will we.

Despite the absence of a single accepted term/definition, there are certain similarities in how metalinguistic knowledge is characterized across the literature. For one thing, it is usually associated with explicit knowledge about the features of a language and how they are used. The term explicit implies conscious knowledge (as opposed to instinctual) which a person is able to verbalize, such as knowledge about a particular linguistic feature. Thus, if I describe the English past tense -ed and tell you how to use it, I am demonstrating metalinguistic knowledge about English morphology.

I could also demonstrate metalinguistic knowledge about phonology (or sounds) by describing, for example, when the plural -s makes a /z/ sound (as in dog/z/) versus a /s/ sound (as in cat/s/). I can additionally demonstrate metalinguistic knowledge about syntax (word order and clause formation), lexis or semantics (words and their meanings), and pragmatics (the ways in which the face value meaning of a group of words can be altered by social context, intonation, etc.).

A second similarity throughout much of the literature is that metalinguistic knowledge is considered to be a skill or set of skills used for analysis and understanding of various components of language. This means that the development of metalinguistic skills is closely connected with cognitive ability. Thus, we may say that metalinguistic knowledge refers to a set of cognitive skills which allow language learners and users to verbalize explicit knowledge about linguistic structures and how and when they are used.

Is this knowledge useful to learners? I plan to describe some benefits in more detail in my next post, but some basis for its usefulness is found in the skill acquisition theory of second language acquisition (see VanPatten & Williams, 2015). This theory acknowledges that, particularly after a certain age, the acquisition of a second or alternative language tends to follow different cognitive processes than first language acquisition,* with learners relying more on explicit (declarative) knowledge in the early stages and requiring extensive practice employing explicitly learned concepts to slowly automatize their linguistic abilities and gain fluency. The exact age of this shift is unconfirmed, but it is typically acknowledged that by the onset of puberty, children’s ability to acquire new languages to the same level of proficiency as their first is severely limited. For this reason, deliberately helping learners develop explicit metalinguistic knowledge can be a very useful strategy, particularly for older learners.

In its simplest form, metalinguistic instruction entails drawing learners’ attention to ways various patterns and structures of language are used and interact, providing them with a vocabulary to talk about it. It might be as simple as pointing out a Latin root shared by two words (such as benevolent and benefit, which share the Latin root bene, meaning “good”) and explicitly highlighting how that root causes a similarity in their meanings. Alternatively, it might involve in-depth instruction about more complex linguistic elements, such as clause formation, where you give students the vocabulary to describe how different types of clauses are formed and interact. I will describe more strategies for building metalinguistic knowledge in a future post, but you may be realizing that you already provide some degree of metalinguistic instruction.

The amount of metalinguistic instruction given can vary greatly from classroom to classroom, with communicative/content-based classrooms relying on it to a lesser extent than more grammatically oriented language classrooms. However, it can be argued that some amount of metalinguistic instruction is useful in any context (see Lyster, 2007).

I’m not going to suggest that any teaching style is better than another, as both implicit (communicative) and explicit (more grammar-based) teaching approaches have benefits and drawbacks. Rather, I want to highlight that a basic understanding of the concept of metalinguistic knowledge can help language teachers make decisions about the depth and precision we want our students to have in their verbalizable understandings of how language works. From there, we can weave appropriate strategies into our programs.

In closing, I’m curious about your thoughts on metalinguistic knowledge. How does the concept of metalinguistic knowledge play into language objectives in your classroom? To what degree do you offer metalinguistic instruction to help build students’ explicit understandings of different components of language? What amount of metalinguistic instruction do you feel is appropriate in your classroom setting? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

 

Please note that the Ramblings of a Linguaphile site is currently being used for thesis research. Between June 14, 2017, and November 30, 2017, any comments made on posts to this site may be used for research purposes. The identity of the person who posted the comment will be kept anonymous. For more information about the study, please see the About page. By commenting, you consent to participate.

 

References by topic:

Metalinguistic knowledge

Alipour, S. (2014). Metalinguistic and linguistic knowledge in foreign language learners. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 4 (12), 2640-2645. Doi: 10.4304/tpls.4.12.2640-2645.

Jessner, U. (1999). Metalinguistic awareness in multilinguals: Cognitive aspects of third language learning. Language Awareness, 8, 201-209. Doi: 10.1080/09658419908667129.

Myhill, D., and Jones, S. (2015). Conceptualizing metalinguistic knowledge in writing. Culture and Education, 27 (4), 839-867. Doi: 10.1080/11356405.2015.1089387.

Ranta, L. (2002). The role of learners’ language analytic ability in the communicative classroom. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Individual differences and instructed language learning (pp. 159-180). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/lib/mcgill/reader.action?docID=10022333.

Roehr, K. (2007). Metalinguistic knowledge and language ability in university-level L2 learners. Applied Linguistics, 29 (2), 173-199. Doi:10.1093/applin/amm037.

Skill Acquisition Theory and the Critical Period Hypothesis 

VanPatten, B. & Williams, J. (Eds.) (2015). Theories in second language acquisition: An introduction (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Other

Lyster, R. (2007). Language and teaching languages through content: A counterbalanced approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Image:

Pierre-Alexandre Garneua. October 6, 2010. Flickr. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/pagarneau/5057713273/in/photolist-8GW6WZ-8mKreb-yrkFWi-95ZzUd-95ZA5C-8zi77i-9vmsAA-9wmrzM-iteh4L-V92vPX-a3srRF-f1oC1f-nzfdob-8mJKS7-8kpQyr-S6bonj-95ZzDo-95WwNp-Bo32Mq-eyQd1g-qR2j6R-8knULq-snenCP-8XvzoL-9pd7w7-8hMo5H-dCnWdf-i26Bsh-8wWt9Z-8YMUdS-ipay1X-8ttpTZ-dUaMWt-8VVLR7-99LaHq-bB6HbZ-8XRmKB-TKfMqD-8uAA3o-fwXgcj-apNXpn-azU5AV-bysVtS-pYZ5kk-UYCNxC-WuaYwA-UhKMUd-8Vaj7K-daHBvg-8pCJTV.

7 thoughts on “Metalinguistic Knowledge: A Deeper Understanding of Language

  1. Robert

    I find that explicit discussions on language in the classroom are useful regarding certain grammar points that are particularly unusual or seem illogical to learners. For example, many students question the use of the present tense in time clauses in a sentence expressing a future action. I try to explain it in the sense that the time clause represents the reality or state necessary for the future action; e.g. “When the train arrives, we will pick up our baggage.” Also in basic question structure, I try to explain the use of auxiliary verbs in information questions as a ‘bridge’ between the question word and the subject, i.e. ” Where does Michael live?” When the question word is the subject, there is no need for an auxiliary as there is no need for a bridge; i.e. “Who lives on your street?” I think it helps learners visualize the structure more.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your response, Robert. I agree that metalinguistic instruction often seems to be a necessity in cases of very complex grammatical rules and structures. I really like your creative approaches to helping students make some sense of it, too, as opposed to simply teaching the concepts as rules with no rhyme or reason. The “bridge” idea is a really neat one; I’d love to see how my students respond to it when I go back to teaching!

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  2. Very interesting, Melissa! Your post made me want to look for more articles on the subject.
    As a matter of fact, I agree with one which stated that once you have a metalinguistic ability and that you are able to understand the complexity of your native language such as: ” how meaning and nuances and inferences beyond meaning are conveyed; that meaning can be changed by moving words around; that language is not absolute: that changing the name of an object does not change the object, you have the tools for comprehension with metacognition”. The fact that you develop a metalinguistic ability in your own mother tongue will be a great kick off to learn another, new language, as you will start to compare and contrast it to your native language – (Source “Why are Metalinguistic Skills Important?” March 4, 2013 by Geoff Nixon)

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    1. Absolutely, Maria! Surprisingly, I think that many first language speakers understand the nuances of their language very well but never do develop the ability to give a verbal explanation of them. Grammar classes can help, but I actually found that my metalinguistic knowledge of English increased a lot when I began learning Spanish! That is one of the reasons that an instructor who speaks the target language as a second or subsequent language him-/herself can sometimes do a better job of explaining “rules” to students. I think that also shows how metalinguistic knowledge is useful whether it’s someone’s first language or twentieth! As you said, having metalinguistic knowledge in any language is definitely helpful in learning a new one; I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s a concept I hope to talk about a little more in a week or two.

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  3. courtneycon

    As someone who works with adult learners, I can attest to the value metalinguistic knowledge has in language learning to those who are mature learners. My students often ask for a deeper explanation of a grammar or phonetic rule. They want to know why things are the way they are. They want to see that there is structure and reasoning behind things because it helps them make sense of it all. Otherwise, they become heavily dependent on their memorization skills and instincts which are not always that strong.

    Metalinguistic knowledge, I find, also enables learners to be more independent learners. Once they have some understanding of how the language works, they can start comparing and contrasting and finding their own patterns. Without those skills, they become deeply reliant on the teacher to inform them. I would often ask my learners to find the patterns when presenting a new grammar topic or encourage them to think about their phonetic knowledge when presented with a new vocabulary word that they weren’t sure how to pronounce. Instead of having them play guessing games all day long, I give them tools and skills that they can apply when presented with new information.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your response. Those are excellent strategies! I love the ideas that they gain independence when you provide metalinguistic tools. It is also an excellent practice to have learners draw out the grammar point for themselves, and I think this actually speaks to what I’ve written in the “part 2” of this post (link below); metalinguistic instruction is far more useful if presented in a meaningful context. Allowing learners to engage in this way may help to provide that meaning! As for comparing and contrasting, I’ve just posted about how comparing and constrasting between languages as well as within can be helpful.

      https://ramblingsofalinguaphile.com/2017/08/25/metalinguistic-knowledge-more-layers/

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  4. Pingback: Metalinguistic Knowledge: More Layers – Ramblings of a Linguaphile

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