Metalinguistics Defined

Metalinguistics, or meta - awareness skill is to do with the ability of a person to reflect on and consciously ponder about oral and written language and how it is used. Meta is an ancient Greek term, meaning 'beyond.' In the context of language learning 'meta' can be interpreted as going beyond communication and meaning, and to instead focus attention on the underlying structures. 

A large part of successful language intervention is centred on the student being aware of language and the components of language. It's the child's ability to think about and manipulate language forms that can often determine how well they learn a new language concept. Meta - awareness skill is at work when a student is able to switch their attention from the meaning of what they, or others, say to the sayings themselves. This ability - metalinguistic awareness - is a vital skill in language learning. 

For instance, students with excellent phonological awareness are adept at identifying and manipulating speech sounds in words - a meta - awareness skill. Speech pathology students, as a related example, become aware of using meta - awareness skills after learning about phonology and articulation assessment and intervention strategies. Armed with this new information they often note the manner and sound of peoples' speech, either typically developing or deviant speech. 

Small imperfections of articulation are suddenly of great interest. Speech students create mental images of the orientation of a speaker's tongue placement and how firmly it taps the alveolar ridge, etc. Noting tongue position and its effect on speech is a good example of meta - awareness. The ability to look at and think about the underlying structure of communication in a sophisticated way. 

Metalinguistics and oral communication

In social conversations, such as talking about what a new movie was like, both speakers and listeners are interested in the meaning of the message, the content. Attention is not paid to the sounds, words and phrases used in the conversation. All the tiny building blocks of language are seamlessly working together in concert, but beneath conscious awareness. 

Meta - awareness skill and text

The principle of being focused on meaning is also clear in the way good readers read. Skilful readers pay no conscious attention to the way words are written - they don't sound out each word or dissect the composition of a paragraph. (Wallach, 2008) Rather, they are interested only in gaining an understanding of the writer's message. 

However, there are times when even proficient readers make use of meta - awareness skills. This is most evident when confronted with the learning of a new skill. For instance, reading a technical manual about computers - or any task where the language is difficult or unfamiliar. 

Students with language impairment generally have poor metalinguistic skills, and are at a considerable disadvantage when they reach the middle primary school years. After grade 4 students shift increasingly from learning to read to reading to learn. That is, students begin learning from more expository (non-fiction) text where language is far more decontextualized. 

Speech-language pathologists and class teachers need to have an understanding of a child's metalinguistic skill to better plan appropriate language and literacy goals. Having an understanding of metalinguistic awareness allows the clinician to better sense if a student can understand a given task, and whether that task is appropriate for a particular child. (Wallach, 2008)