Metalanguage Matters

“Metalanguage is such a critical part of our discourse… if we can abridge linguistic explanations to make those everyday connections, it will be all for the better…”

Words. We love words if you haven’t already guessed. 

Formulating phrases like “thinking outside the box” and “core competencies” are considered essential to educational discourse and are an integral part of enhancing deep knowledge, and understanding in learning.

However, if we don’t effectively put such words into practice what’s the point? Above all, we need to understand the language first. If how we speak is not understood and the dots are not connected then it is difficult to disguise the fact that something isn’t working properly with the language used. 

As educators, we need to think about this. 

Some may disagree with this idea, but yes, the way teachers and tutors apply metalanguage matters. It is something we do in every lesson. Nonetheless, even as we do so, we come to find that there are both advantages and disadvantages of using metalanguage in learning and we must find ways that work to ensure the knowledge gained becomes worthwhile.

Everyone involved, parents, and caregivers included, needs to be thinking about this in some way, for communication is a daily routine to learning something every day! So let’s look at the concept of metalanguage and how it counts for all walks of life. Metalanguage matters in every aspect.

What is Metalanguage?

According to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary online: Metalanguage: is a language used to talk about language. 

Confused? That’s not giving us much is it?

A more informative explanation would be to say: It is the language whereby teachers and learners use certain terminology to discuss the English language, in subjects. Common metalanguage includes words like: ‘verb’, ‘noun’, ‘present perfect’, ‘continuous’ and ‘reported speech.’

“Underline all the past simple verbs.”

Does this phrase sound familiar? This is the common teacher or tutor talk, which is undoubtedly heard, in face-to-face and virtual English classes everywhere. What happens, however, when you struggle with expression, your linguistics isn’t strong, or when English is your second language?

There’s likely to be more confusion right?

We must consider how certain language impacts, particularly if we’re bilingual . After all, we are a global community, and working together is at the core of what we do at Tutor Partners.

Why do we use Metalanguage?

There are numerous reasons why we use metalanguage in teaching, multilingual students included of course.

Firstly, it’s easier to talk about and analyze the technical aspects of the language. This provides a common framework on which to provide explanations of the language involved. Imagine attempting to explain or teach “comparatives” or “superlatives” in writing without ever applying the term adjective? Truthfully, it would be significantly more difficult to connect language, and would no doubt include more of the “fluffy stuff”, which is not only time-consuming but also adds to the confusion.

Bear in mind, that all of us have been language learners for a while. As a result: We’re expected to know words!

As we progress through our education there’s a certain degree of metalanguage everywhere. Students’ are likely to have encountered the language in previous English coursework or textbooks. Particularly students who come from a very traditional educational background would have been taught using the technical terms for language and it would be highly odd not to use those same or familiar terms.

In turn, as educators, we are expected to identify metalanguage as a form of professional knowledge. We learn metalinguistic terms as part of academia, training, and pedagogy and therefore it is like second nature to use certain language in teaching practices. 

Similarly, metalanguage also helps our learners compartmentalize language itself. Effectively, using terms helps our learners process what we are teaching and relate it to the language they already know. This is useful because building on our learners’ previous knowledge enhances the understanding, rather than learning a topic from scratch.

On the other hand, why should we “waste” half an hour discussing “Alliteration: The repetition of a consonant at the beginning of nearby words”, when students could be learning how to use it instead? Does it matter what it’s called if the learner knows how to use it appropriately?

In a word: Yes. Without realizing it, we connect thousands of words of similarity as just one form of communication in the real world to function and obtain what we need. 

“Language exerts hidden power, like a moon on the tides.”

~ Rita Mae Brown

Metalanguage Matters

As with most situations in life, this is not a straight black and white subject. However, to say we shouldn’t use any metalinguistic terms would be rather foolish. It’s highly useful in utilizing students’ connections to the already familiar. Ultimately, this enhances learning and reduces confusion rather than complicating matters. As always, we believe previous learning experiences count, to building upon knowledge most of all. 

Just be, and live freely. My Tutor Partners advocates for the understanding and effective use of metalanguage in education, ensuring that students receive clear and coherent instruction that facilitates their learning and comprehension. Let’s embrace the power of language together.

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