There was a time when phrases like ‘blue-sky thinking’, ‘core competencies’, ‘thinking outside the box’ and other business jargon were considered essential to being accepted as part of the business discourse community and to sounding knowledgeable, experienced, and business savvy.
A recent survey however showed that such corporate management speak was often used by people attempting to bluff their way through meetings and discussions, and to disguise the fact that one hadn’t done their work properly.
Some might disagree but could this be similar to the way we English teachers use metalanguage?
What is metalanguage?
According to Wikipedia, metalanguage, in linguistics, is a language used to make statements about statements in another language.
A simpler explanation is offered by the British Council website, which states that metalanguage is the language teachers and learners use to talk about the English language, learning and teaching. Common classroom metalanguage includes ‘verb’, ‘noun’, ‘present perfect continuous’, ‘reported speech’, etc.
‘Oh! I use those all the time!’ I hear you saying...
And why do you use them? Could these be the reasons?
- They make it easier to explain language and how language is used.
- They help students categorise and compartmentalize the mechanics of language and how it works so that they can learn it more easily. The ability to talk about language can help the students’ linguistic knowledge and awareness.
- Such compartmentalization of language enables a clearer and more linear presentation of it in courses, i.e. syllabuses and course material e.g. coursebooks.
- They are part of the discourse of language teaching and learning. To not deal with metalanguage in your classroom and teaching training courses might mean a exclusion from the discourse community of language teaching and learning. This might cause future problems when one needs to interact and talk about language with other peers.'
- Metalanguage is in most coursebooks and course materials.
- Students expect such metalanguage to be used. They most probably have used it in their previous English learning experience and are comfortable with using it. Failure to use metalanguage might even point towards the teacher’s lack of expertise.
But just like the rejection of management speak, the use of metalanguage in the classroom has been increasingly frowned upon and rejected by some.
Here are some of the arguments against the use of metalanguage:
- It is unnecessary and can confuse students.
- It is exclusionary. It purposely creates a closed discourse community that shuts out those that are not ‘in the know’. Education and language learning should be for everyone and not only for the privileged few.
- In order to use metalanguage, teachers have to spend a considerable amount of time teaching the metalanguage itself. This is a waste of precious classroom time.
- Talking about language is not the same as using a language. Being able to analyse how language works does not mean you can actually speak the language fluently.
- It places too much focus on grammatical competencies rather than on what is important, i.e. communicative competence.
- It is old-fashioned and belongs to the time of grammar translation and grammar syllabi.
- It is used by teachers to show off how much they know and how much knowledge they can impart. And teaching today is not about imparting knowledge but about facilitating and effecting learning.
- Badly-termed metalanguage can serve to confuse rather than be helpful. (see my next post for examples)
The above arguments do seem convincing and it is no surprise that more and more teachers, teacher trainers, and coursebook writers are increasingly becoming ‘anti-metalanguage’.
But like anything else, to implement a blanket rule that dismisses, or even bans all metalanguage from the classroom and from course materials is difficult and impractical.
So where do we draw the line?
When does metalanguage become unhelpful, unnecessary and even harmful?
Have a look at the following 20 metalinguistic terms. (They are followed by italicized examples to clarify the terms.)
Which ones do you know and which ones would you use in the classroom?
Would you make a distinction between teaching them to students and to teacher trainees? Why?
1. Verb (do, take, bring); Noun (table, school, happiness); Adverb (slowly, well, quite)
2. Types of adverbs e.g. comment adverbials (to be honest, in my opinion, having said that); adverbs of frequency (always, seldom, never); adverbs of time (yesterday, last month, every other week); adverbs of manner (gently, slowly, angrily); adverbs of place (here, there, everywhere), etc.
3. Infinitive (to be, to take, to bring)
4. Bare infinitive a.k.a base form (be, take, bring)
5. Perfect infinitive (to have been, to have taken, to have brought); Progressive infinitive (to be taking, to be bringing); Perfect progressive infinitive (to have been taking, to have been bringing)
6. Past participle (been, taken, brought)
7. Gerund a.k.a -ing form a.k.a present participle (being, taking bringing)
8. Preposition (to, at, in, through, beyond, despite)
9. Modal verbs (can, could, may, might, must) and other auxiliaries (to have, to be)
10. Semi-modals (used to, ought to, need)
11. Contractions (I’m, can’t, mightn’t)
12. Definite article (the); indefinite article (a/an)
13. Anaphoric referencing (referring backwards e.g. Sam won the Grammies and he certainly deserved it) and Cataphoric referencing (referring forwards e.g. When she found out, my mother wasn’t happy.)
14. Possessive adjective (my, your, his, her); Possessive pronoun (mine, yours, his, hers)
15. Tense (present, past) and Aspect (simple, progressive/continuous)
16. Past Perfect Progressive/Continuous (had been taking, had been cooking, had been seeing)
17. Clause (‘I eat’, ‘they like fish’, ‘who has been ill for three days’)
18. Subjunctive mood i.e. referring to what is not real (‘You should have listened’, ‘I wouldn’t have done that’, ‘it couldn’t have happened’)
19. Attributive adjectives (mere, former, main) and Predicative adjectives (alone, awake, alert)
20. Antecedent i.e. the noun/noun phrase the pronoun or relative clause refers to (The mothers at the book club, they were all professionals working in York; The old lady who lives by the sea)
You might now think that metalanguage tends to be about grammar and syntax, but have a look at the following.
21. Synonyms (sociable, gregarious, friendly, amiable)
22. Antonyms (tall/short, large/small, beautiful/ugly)
23. Hyponyms and their superordinates a.k.a hypernyms (lily/flower, butcher/shop, coffee/drink)
24. Meronym (eyes, nose, lips, ears; tyres, windscreen, clutch, boot; leaves, trunk, roots, branch)
25. Collocation (to take stock, to take a photo, to have dinner, a sharp fall, a much needed boost)
26. Binomials (spick and span, safe and sound, fish and chips) and Trinomials (tall, dark and handsome; here, there and everywhere; hook, line and sinker)
27. Vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and consonants (d, f, c)
28. Schwa / ə / and Dipthongs /ɔɪ/, /aʊ/, /uə/
29. Assimilation (‘white plates’ becomes ‘wipe plates'; ‘good girl’ becomes ‘goog girl’)
30. Catanation (‘an umbrella’ becomes ‘anumb-rella’, ‘an apple’ becomes ‘a napple’)
I could go on and on but I guess by now you can see that there are metalinguistic terms that you might not choose to use but there are also terms that you would find it hard to teach without. And the decision to use them (or not) will depend on the following.
- How well do your learners already know these terms? Do you have to spend time teaching them the terms?
- Will using these terms help your learners understand and be more aware of how the English language works and help them to use it better?
- Will using these terms help the students use their course material better?
- Will using these terms save you time explaining language in the long run?
- Will these terms confuse the learners?
For there are metalinguistic terms that can actually do more harm than good and might cause more confusion than necessary.
I will address these issues in the next follow-up blogpost.
Metalanguage is so much part of our discourse that perhaps to get rid of it entirely would not only create more problems in the long run. Teacher trainees graduating from teaching training courses that are anti-metalanguage might find themselves at a lost when trying to engage in staffroom discussions about language and teaching. After all, what kind of professional footballer would you be if you didn’t know the terms ‘offside’ and ‘golden goal’ refer to?
So let’s not get too up in arms about the evils of metalanguage for it has its place in English language teaching. But let us consider more carefully which ones we choose to use and which ones we don’t.
Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.
Fascinated by the interplay between culture, language and thought, Chia is also an intercultural skills trainer and materials developer, and is now based in York.
She is also the voice of @ETprofessional on Twitter. You can find out more about her on her blogsite www.chiasuanchong.com