What is metalanguage? An easy way to remember what metalanguage is, is to call it language about language. What language do teachers use to show students the meaning, form and function of the target language? EFL teachers are generally living in countries where they don’t speak the native language fluently, and need to find a way of expressing the nuances of Enlgish in English.
In the earliest stages of language learning, beginners learn some basic words that are easily culturally compatible, such as “hello” and “goodbye”. It is ok to translate these words, because they have (practically) the same meaning in every language. A beginner should also learn the basics of the alphabet, and phonics to allow them to at least copy from the board and begin ‘sounding out’ unfamiliar words. These skills are needed before real language acquisition can begin.
In most cases, an Enlgish language teacher should not use the students’ L1 (or first language) in class. Students’ minds are pre-wired to think in their L1, and they already have had plenty of practice using it. By using the students’ L1 to translate new words and ideas, the teacher is effectively lessening the amount of English practice students are getting and limiting the effectiveness of the lesson. Learning a new language is about creating new connections in the mind, and building them up. Without practice of the new language, these connections won’t grow, and by simply translating you are only reinforcing old connections.
Metalanguage can be used as shortcuts along these new connections, and is the best way to provide students with the explanation that they need to supplement their L1. From the Elementary (A2) level, teachers should be beginning to introduce grammar structures and this is where metalanguage begins. In the section below, the words in bold are metalanguage words common to the early levels of EFL/ESL.
At the Elementary stage, many teachers begin each the lesson by writing “S V O” up in the top left of the board. This stands for Subject, Verb and Object; three valuable metalanguage words and the basic English structure that every Elementary student needs to become familiar with as soon as possible. This is the structure of Phrases. To help introduce and practice subjects, you can teach students the 7 subject Pronouns, and begin introducing simple Nouns. Through demonstration and examples, students can understand these without translating (however, translating metalanguage is not detrimental). You can then easily move on to teaching the verbs (actions and mime will help you here) and object pronouns (based on your teaching of subject pronouns.) Once students can undertand what Subjects, Verbs, Objects, Phrases, Nouns and Pronouns are, it is simply a matter of expanding these ideas.
In the Elementary level, you should also introduce other principle topics such as Adjectives, Adverbs, Articles, the ‘Be Verb’ (or Verb To Be) and other Auxiliary Verbs, Prepositions, and the basic Tenses – Simple, Continuous, and Perfect (but probably not Perfect Continuous until students get to Pre-intermediate.)
You can also begin introducing information about Genre to reading and writing classes.
In these early stages, students should not have too much trouble soaking up this information with enough practice and reinforcement. They will begin to be able to express their ideas, albeit with plenty of mistakes.
By the Pre-intermediate stage, students should have an understanding of the above mentioned metalanguage, and will be able to start learning about things such as Conditionals, The Active and Passive Voice, different uses of the tenses and more specific types of words such as Gerunds, Comparitives, Superlatives, Modal Verbs, Phrasal Verbs and Collocations.
All of these secondary areas of grammar give students the tools to use language expressively and begin choosing the way they want to communicate in English.
Many teachers spend just as much time teaching these metalanguage expressions as they do teaching the things they represent. Metalanguage is used in so many aspects of teaching. It can be used to help introduce a lesson or new language target, explaining what is needed to complete classroom tasks and giving suggestions for improvements. When giving students explanations of errors in their work, it is much more useful to say, “You are missing your auxiliary verb” and allow stuents to correct their own mistakes, rather than “That is incorrect, this is correct…”
How do you use Metalanguage in your classroom? We would love to hear your teaching advice in the comments section below.