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Does metalanguage matter?

In the world of ELT, the question of whether metalanguage should be used in the classroom remains controversial and highly contested. A lot of foreign students who have learnt English in a formal setting in their respective countries are already aware of a lot of metalanguage relating to grammatical structures. This is particularly true of students from countries such as South Korea, Switzerland and Turkey. Therefore, is knowledge of metalanguage useful to foreign students’ language learning, or does it just make the teacher's job easier?

Recently, I taught a class of students which contained a mix of both foreign and native language learners, and the term 'preposition' came up. The foreign learners' faces brightened in comprehension, while the native speakers furrowed their brows as if to gesticulate that they might have heard this word somewhere before and therefore would be able to guess its meaning. After I had verbally bounced off a list of prepositions to the class, the native speakers understood and seemed happy to now know how to categorise these words. The point I am trying to make is that metalanguage in the classroom can go a long way towards clarifying concepts.
So what are the advantages and disadvantages of using metalanguage?

Advantages:

  • Metalanguage makes it easier for a teacher to explain language and how it is used.
  • It helps students to categorise and compartmentalise different components of language.
  • Metalanguage is used in course books and course materials.
  • Failure to use metalanguage can point towards a teacher’s lack of expertise and many students expect metalanguage to be used by qualified language teachers.

Disadvantages:

  • In order to use metalanguage, teachers need to spend a considerable amount of time teaching the metalanguage itself.
  • It places more focus on grammatical competencies and not communicative competence. Talking about language is not the same as using language, and therefore, it detracts from enabling fluency.
  • It can appear to be exclusionary, especially when only a few learners are familiar with it.
  • Some teachers use metalanguage to show off their knowledge, and the focus falls away from facilitating effective language learning.
  • Badly-termed metalanguage can confuse learners and be quite demotivating.

I think it is important to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages, choosing to use Metalanguage when necessary and in moderation. Your decision to use it should depend on whether it will help your students to use their course material better, help them understand how the language works, and whether or not it will confuse them. Ultimately you will have to find the right balance to fulfill your students’ needs and goals.