Metalanguage in the EFL Classroom

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Underline all the past simple verbs.

Is this a second or a third conditional?

Today we’re going to look at reported speech.

Sound familiar? These are examples of teacher talk which are probably heard in English as a Foreign Language classrooms all over the world. They are also examples of metalanguage. Metalanguage is the language used to talk about language.

Confusing?

 Maybe, but using metalanguage is a regular feature of the average EFL classroom. It is something we do in almost every lesson. However, even as we do it we realise there are advantages and disadvantages of using metalanguage in the classroom, so let’s look at a few of those to see if it’s actually worth our while.

Read more: An A – Z of the English Language

Why do we use metalanguage?

There are a number of reasons why we use metalanguage in the EFL classroom.

First of all, it makes it easier to talk about the technical aspects of the language. It provides a common framework on which to give explanations of language. Can you imagine trying to explain comparatives and superlatives without using the term adjective? Or how to construct the present perfect without using the term past participle? It would be a lot more difficult, would probably include more fluffy language, might be a bit confusing, and would definitely take a lot of time.

Similarly, metalanguage helps our language learners compartmentalise language. Effectively, using these terms helps our learners process the new language we are teaching and relate it to the language they already know. This is useful because building on our learners’ previous knowledge can help them learn more easily than learning a topic from scratch.

It’s expected!

Then, bear in mind that our students have probably been language learners for a while. As a result, they expect a certain degree of metalanguage as they are likely to have encountered the language in previous English lessons or in coursebooks or in reference books. Especially students who come from a very traditional educational background would have been taught using the technical terms for language and would find it very odd if you as their EFL teacher did not use those same terms.

Read more: The Case For and Against Coursebooks

Finally, teachers are expected to know metalanguage as it is a sign of knowledge. We learn metalinguistic terms as a part of our training and so it becomes second nature to use it in the classroom. As soon as we learn to use the terms appropriately, it is easy to slip into the habit of using them all the time – but that’s also possibly because we understand its usefulness.

using metalanguage

Does using metalanguage confuse our learners?

On the other hand, there are numerous arguments against the use of metalanguage.

For one thing, using it may require teaching it, which is a waste of precious classroom time that could be spent teaching the language that students will use in the real world. Being able to speak about the language is not the same as being able to communicate in the language, and it is the latter that is the main goal of our learners and not the former. Why should they waste an hour talking about the present perfect when they could be learning how to use it instead? Does it really matter what it’s called, so long as the learner knows how to use it appropriately?

It can further be confusing for students if the metalanguage is not clear or if the teacher is not totally comfortable with using metalanguage. Grammatical terms can be tricky, so even slightly misusing a term can cause huge confusion with our learners.

Plus, it can make language learning seem a lot more challenging. If a learner doesn’t understand a metalinguistic term, they can be put off from even attempting to learn the target language. If the teacher overuses metalanguage it might even make the lesson boring. And, if this happens and our learners become bored or give up, we have lost them at the first hurdle.

These are all valid reasons for not using metalanguage, but what is the alternative?

Should we use metalanguage?

As with most things in life, this is not a black and white issue.

To say we shouldn’t use any metalinguistic terms would be foolish, as they can be very useful. Rather, teachers need to identify which metalinguistic terms they should utilise in the classroom. These need to be metalinguistic terms that are already familiar to their students and the use of which will save time and simplify rather than complicate matters.

If any terms are likely to cause more confusion than clarity or if even the teacher is not totally sure of the meaning of it, then it should be left out completely. This will probably end up in the teacher using very common metalinguistic terms, like parts of speech, but not more uncommon terms, like those referring to paralinguistic features of language or theoretical terms.

On a general level, common metalinguistics terms are parts of speech and names of tenses, while more uncommon metalinguistic terms are those which relate to very complex grammar or literary devices. A good rule of thumb is if you are comfortable with the term, then it is more than likely accessible to your learners.

Older learners vs younger learners

Consequently, teachers should find that they use metalanguage more freely with older learners and learners with higher levels of English, while keeping it to a minimum with learners of lower levels and using it very sparingly with Young Learners. They should also take into account the previous learning experiences of their learners and how much metalinguistic knowledge the learners already have. All of these will help them make a decision about how much metalanguage is beneficial to use in a classroom.

In a nutshell, using metalanguage is a choice the teacher must make, based on the needs and abilities of the students, and the knowledge of the teacher. The ultimate use of metalanguage must be to simplify linguistic explanations, so the teacher must be confident in their knowledge, as well as skillful in their use of the metalinguistic terms.

But if you can handle this balancing act, using metalanguage is an excellent tool in the EFL classroom.

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