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 awareness, understanding, 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!
- See my discussion of the Critical Period Hypothesis in Overcoming the Monolingual Bias
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References by topic:
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.
Lyster, R. (2007). Language and teaching languages through content: A counterbalanced approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
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.