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Metalinguistic Awareness Helps Students Deconstruct & Truly “Get” Language

“Metalinguistics”  and “metalinguistic awareness” aren’t exactly words and phrases that most people know. As a parent, you may have never heard of metalinguistics. It rarely comes up in conversations with other parents or even teachers.

Metalinguistics awareness is the ability to look at language as a thing; to evaluate language as a process or even a system; and to maneuver around successfully in using language. Typically adults do not talk about the syllables in the words they are speaking or the actual meaning of a word in a sentence — which are metalinguistic skills. The term was coined in the 1970s when researchers used it to describe the process of learning multiple languages, however it applies to many facets of language.

Once you have metalinguistic ability and can understand the intricacies of your native language such as:

  • how meaning and nuances and inferences beyond meaning are conveyed,
  • that meaning can be changed by moving words around
  • that language is not absolute, that changing the name of an object does not change the object

you have the tools for comprehension with metacognition.  Metalinguistic ability also sets you to successfully begin to learn another, new language. As a result, you can start to compare and contrast the languages and remember that in one language you do a-b-c, whereas in another, the rule is d-e-f.

Metalinguistic Awareness Depends on Metalinguistic Skills

Metalinguistic awareness also refers to the awareness that you can change language in different ways, that you have the power to manipulate it. For example, if you write a letter to someone and realize afterwards that sentences #4 through #7 do not make sense, you can rewrite those sentences. You have the power to change them.

As they grow up, kids start to examine their own work.  They should start to look at their essays and homework assignments with a more thinking and critical eye. They will begin to see that there may be better ways to say something. For example, they may write a sentence like:

“I went to the big pond for a big day of fishing in the lake.”

Metalinguistic awareness will alert them to the fact that there’s a discrepancy in the sentence: is it a pond or is it a lake?  With metalinguistic awareness, a person can reflect on the language.

They could also understand – with metalinguistic awareness – that not all language is literal.  For example, if someone says, “My little dog is an Olympic athlete,” it doesn’t mean that the dog participates in the Olympic athletic events. Instead, it means that the dog is athletic, good at athletic skills, and the owner thinks that the dog has a lot of potential.

This is a necessary step to metacognition, the ability to monitor your own understanding as you listen and read – knowing about knowing. Metacognition is the last step to high school reading proficiency.

Learning Glitches Undermine Metalinguistic Awareness

Children with auditory processing disorder (APD) have difficulty with metalinguistics and metalinguistic awareness. However, programs created to assist children, teens or adults with APD focus on metalinguistic skills to bring these learners success.

As a parent, improving your child’s metalinguistic skills allows you to ask him or her to do their homework and to check it. You can expect higher grades and higher understanding.

Gemm Learning provides Fast ForWord software to improve the processing skills needed to improve metalinguistic skills.  Learn how we help processing here.