Metalanguage helps you to talk about the cogs and wheels of language

Metalanguage : learning to talk *about* your target language

One of the biggest challenges for language students is to maintain a 100% target-language environment during lessons. Holding everyday conversations is one thing. But when it comes to discussing the language itself, we often lack the tools. We need metalanguage.

Metalanguage refers to the set of terms for describing and analysing language. You probably learnt such terms at school in your native language lessons: verb, noun, pronoun and so on. But typically, these aren’t presented in the target language when you are learning from foreign language course material. This makes chatting about your learning incredibly difficult.

Keep the target language flowing

I recently noticed what a positive effect metalanguage can have in my Polish lessons. With my teacher, we’ve been covering noun cases lately – always a tricky topic for English-speaking students of the language. My attempt to keep speaking Polish was constantly thwarted by having to switch to English: “ohhhh, that’s genitive plural“, “does that take the instrumental?” and so on. It was getting tedious.

Quick fix: I learnt the names of the Polish cases in Polish. For fans of tongue-twisters, they are: mianownik, biernik, dopełniacz, celownik, narzędnik, miejscownik and wołacz (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, locative and vocative). Some quite challenging vocabulary in one go, there!

Metalanguage: unlocking further vocabulary

Of course, language lesson is the environment where knowing these will help prevent breakdowns in the 100% target language flow. However, you might think that metalanguage is of limited use beyond teacher talk.

However, learning words like these helps you to do more than just talk about language. They can be keys to new and extra vocabulary in themselves. Through spotting links between the names of the cases and other Polish words, for example, they have also consolidated my own expanding neural network of Polish words.

How does this work? Well, let’s take the word for dative in Polish, celownik. This derives from the word cel (goal, aim), and in turn, relates to celowo (deliberately, on purpose). Quite natural, then, that the noun case for direction, or doing something to someone/something proceeds from this family of words. Instantly, these terms are no longer in isolation for me, but in a group. Crucially, grouping of related terms strengthens recall, something borne out by memory research.

Several (overwhelmingly European) languages, rather annoyingly, stick to Latin terminology for analytical grammatical terms. German, for example, uses Verb and Präsens (Present Tense), amongst others. But often, there are alternative ways to describe language phenomenon, which are not simply borrowings. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that you can also use Zeitwort (verb – literally ‘time word’) and Gegenwart (present – in the grammatical and literal sense of ‘being present’) instead. It pays to persevere with your dictionary.

See your own language differently

Finally, learning these terms, and what they refer to, not only helps you become a better speaker of your target language; you also come to know your first language on much closer terms.

As a case in point, I grew up in the classrooms of the 1980s, where the grammar of my own language barely featured in English lessons. It was only after switching on to foreign languages that I began to understand how my own worked. Learning terms like passive voicevalency and indirect object opened up a whole new world. My English improved along with my practical language skills. Getting to grips with metalanguage is a vital step on the way to earning the label ‘linguist’.

It’s certainly worth researching metalanguage in the languages you study. Whether to keep your native language lapses to a minimum, or unlock and consolidate further vocabulary, talking about your language in your language is an effort that pays off.

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