Published 22nd January 2019


Last Updated on

This article will tell you all you need to know about metalanguage in the EFL classroom.

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. This is the language used to talk about language and it is often used in classrooms when teaching English.

Why do we use metalanguage?

There are a number of reasons why.  It makes it easier to talk about technical aspects of the language. It provides a common framework on which to base discussions on and explanations of language. Students expect a certain degree of metalanguage as they are likely to have encountered the language in previous English lessons or in reference books. Teachers are expected to know metalanguage as it is a sign of knowledge and we learn this as a part of our training and so it becomes second nature to use it in the classroom.

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 which is the main goal of our learners and not the former. It can further be confusing for students if the metalanguage is not clear or if the teacher is not totally comfortable with using metalanguage. 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. Teachers need to use metalinguistic terms which are already familiar to their students and the use of which will save time. 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 probably 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.