Metalinguistic Knowledge: More Layers


By Melissa J. Enns

In my recent post about metalinguistic knowledge, I introduced the concept and made a case for its relevance for language teachers and learners. I suggested that at least some metalinguistic instruction is beneficial to learners. Now, I will expand on that claim and the concept of metalinguistic knowledge, while suggesting some strategies that could be useful in language classrooms.

A reader of the last post correctly made the comment that metalinguistic ability in one language is helpful to the acquisition of another. According to Jessner (1999), language learners slowly begin to reflect on their language use and compare their different languages. This is a more abstract type of metalinguistic knowledge than the knowledge about forms and functions of one language I described earlier. The experience gained through learning a second language is believed to accelerate the language learning process for any additional languages, because, as Jessner (1999) states, learners develop cognitive strategies which they reflect on, assess, and consciously employ in learning a third. In fact, learners’ metacognitive abilities for language learning improve as languages are learned (Jessner, 1999; Roehr, 2007). During the process of second language acquisition, learners develop, test, and refine language learning strategies, and the ability to engage in such reflection seems to help them acquire additional languages more quickly. It also represents a greater level of abstraction, so that metalinguistic knowledge may entail knowledge about one language, comparison of multiple languages, or reflection on language learning strategies. With these things in mind, there are several ways that teachers could help optimize students’ learning outcomes.

For one thing, it is useful to encourage students to compare their languages and evaluate their progress and competence. When I taught beginners’ conversational Spanish, I encouraged learners to utilize any measures in their grasp that would help them retain the material, whether it was paying attention to cognates, using kinesthetic or mnemonic queues, or repeating/rewriting things. This also lends itself to the testing and development of effective language learning strategies. I believe that it’s important that learners are given the freedom to develop their own strategies rather than being told how to learn, especially since strategic competence (cognitive language learning skills and strategies) can play a notable role in linguistic outcomes (Ranta, 2002). Each learner is different, so teachers can highlight different possible learning strategies and encourage students to test them out.

Another thing teachers can do is suggested by the idea that increased metalinguistic knowledge in one language facilitates learning of another. Since Jessner and Roehr claim that learning a second language refines metalinguistic abilities and language-learning strategies, wouldn’t it also be useful to students’ target language outcomes to be provided with metalinguistic instruction in their first language? This may not be plausible or necessary in all learning contexts; however, often first language speakers of a language can use language quite flawlessly but remain unable to describe why or how they discern right and wrong ways to use it. I used to tutor undergraduate students in Spanish, and I discovered that many of them didn’t know what a noun or verb was. Before they could understand the forms and functions of parts of speech in Spanish, I had to teach them what they are and give examples of how they work in English. Teachers are not always able to offer metalinguistic grammatical instruction in learners’ first languages, but when we are, it may be helpful to their target language learning.

Finally, studies have suggested that learners’ proficiency will generally benefit when they are provided with appropriate metalinguistic tools (Roehr, 2007; Alipour, 2015; Ranta, 2002), as has been discussed previously. However, Roehr (2007) emphasizes that the best learning results may be achieved when teachers seek to advance students’ communicative proficiency concurrently with their metalinguistic knowledge, whereas an overload of metalinguistic instruction before they have a base level of proficiency may not be helpful. Thus, teachers should offer metalinguistic instruction in smaller doses and meaningful (communicative) contexts (Roehr, 2007). In other words, a grammar point (metalinguistic instruction) will likely be much more useful to learners’ proficiency if it is presented in a meaningful context, such as discussion of an event or personal story. Furthermore, educators should scaffold learning by building new knowledge from material students already know (Alipour, 2014).

For example, if my students are competent with English simple past but do not use past perfect, I might ask them to describe a situation in the past in which they found out about something that had happened before that moment. I can draw attention to the ambiguity of using only simple past tense and provide metalinguistic instruction on how we can use past perfect with simple past to situate two different points in the past in relation to each other (compare “I didn’t know he had eaten supper” with “I didn’t know he ate supper”). Thus, the assignment would draw out a grammar point (metalinguistic knowledge about the past perfect) from a meaningful context.

While there are many ways to build metalinguistic knowledge, it is useful to consider the roles that comparing languages and developing language learning strategies play in its successful construction. With the strategies I’ve suggested in mind, do you have any ideas for specific activities or lessons you could do with students to help them improve their metalinguistic engagement and understandings? What are some ways you could provide meaningful contexts for metalinguistic instruction?


Please note that the Ramblings of a Linguaphile site is currently being used for thesis research. Between June 14, 2017, and December 31, 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.



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.

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

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


Modified from Weintrob, S. (2010). Inception movie poster. Retrieved August 24, 2017 from


5 thoughts on “Metalinguistic Knowledge: More Layers

  1. I totally agree with your statement “I believe that it’s important that learners are given the freedom to develop their own strategies rather than being told how to learn”. Indeed, we are all experiencing, somehow, “differently” the learning of a language, whether it is our own mother tongue or a second language. Our process of learning is tightly related to emotion, old and new data coming from our senses, beliefs and so on. To me, the self discovery technique , used for introducing a new grammar point for instance, is one of the best ways to engage students in the process of “developing, testing and refining their language learning strategies”.
    A way to present a meaningful context would be, for instance, providing situational contexts in which different forms of questions, polite requests and direct commands are used. They could be arranged in a way that they can be easily compared and exemplified. Thus, an implicit metalinguistic information would be provided to students while encouraging them to notice regularities and contrasts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Maria! Would you consider your idea for providing a meaningful context for questions, requests, and commands to be an example of the self discovery technique, in that you would encourage students to notice regularities and constrasts implicitly through their own process of discovery? I have not yet done a lot of reading on implicit grammatical instruction, but my understanding is that it can be quite effective, although it is often rather labour intensive for teachers. I’ll have to put it on my list of topics to investigate further! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Tapping Into the First Language – Ramblings of a Linguaphile

  3. Kaia

    Your example of how you had taught the Past Perfect reminds me of an activity I did with my students a few years ago. I am a lover of verb tenses and a big believer in teaching how changing the grammar of a sentence can change the tone and meaning of an intended communication. Therefore, in an attempt to contrast various verb tenses, I drafted a handful of various scenarios containing layers of activities and read them out to my students with the intention that they would guess the verb tense that would most appropriately describe the action. For example, the past perfect progressive is defined as: a continuous action that was completed in the past, usually before another action or interrupted by another action. With this definition in mind I would create a scenario such as: Last weekend my mother and I planned to meet for coffee at coffee shop at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday. I arrived on time and sat there for 15 minutes waiting for my mother. Finally, she texted to say she had forgotten but was on her way. She got there several minutes later; I had waited for 30 minutes in total before she arrived. After giving this scenario, I would ask the student to write one sentence that encompassed the whole situation and showed an ongoing action in the past that was completed before a specific time. With a bit of coaxing, the students came up with a sentence such as: I had been waiting for my mother for 30 minutes before she arrived at the coffee shop on Saturday afternoon. Once they got the hang of this, I switched the activity and gave them a sentence for which they had to create a scenario. I have found this to be an effective way to teach verb tenses while getting my students to think about both form and meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing this helpful activity, Kaia! It seems you put a lot of thought into structuring this activity so that learners could grasp and work with it, which is an aspect that I sometimes find challenging.


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