The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Metalanguage - friend or foe?

I started school in the 1970s when ideas about education were rather ‘hippy’, for want of a better word, and teaching grammar was thought to be old-fashioned and unnecessary. So it wasn't until I studied Linguistics at university that I got to grips with the whole concept of nouns, verbs and adjectives. And it wasn't until I started teaching EFL that my grasp of grammatical terminology more generally gradually filled out - picked up almost entirely from the textbooks I was teaching, often only just ahead of the students I was teaching it to! So I suppose, I have a natural wariness of metalanguage (language to describe language). Coming from a background in which ‘fancy’ terminology seemed both alien and alienating - to me, it was very much the language of ‘posh’ people with a classical, private school education - I felt that people only used it to show off and that it wasn't really necessary, having got on perfectly well without it for so many years.

Since then, my grasp of not just basic grammatical terminology, but the whole mess of metalanguage that surrounds the study and teaching of language more generally has flourished and it's come to feel more familiar, more a natural part of my own vocabulary, so I can now “talk terminology” with the best of them. I'm still acutely aware though that this isn't the case for everybody, and I know that for many of my learners, all those fancy terms are equally as confusing and alienating as they were for me at one time. I certainly wouldn't advocate the slightly weird, listen-and-repeat language learning methodologies that I was subjected to as a child and I can see that it's helpful to have some basic terminology to talk about the subject you're teaching/studying, in this case language. But I'm always wary about letting the terminology get out of hand - after all, the majority of my students aren't interested in language for language’s sake, for most, it's a means to an end.

The issue of metalanguage in the classroom becomes even more evident when you move into EAP (English for academic purposes) and you're suddenly faced with perspective, stance, voice, contextualisation, evaluation, objectivity, subjectivity, criticality, exemplification, citation, signposting, hedging, thesis statements, abstracts, bibliographies ... the list goes on and on and on. For the poor student suddenly having to get to grips with long, dense academic texts, with writing in a very different way, with a new academic culture and with the demands of their own specific discipline, is throwing a whole bunch of extra metalanguage at them, just for the purposes of improving their English, really helpful? Or is it all just part of adapting to the "academic discourse community" (see, I'm quite good at this stuff)? Getting to grips with academic language is all about understanding linguistic labels for abstract concepts after all, so we may as well start them off in the EAP classroom.

Across academia though there's a fine line between terms that are necessary to express subtle, but important distinctions which might be lost by using more everyday language, and unnecessarily complex language that really does nothing more than show off the skills of the writer. So whilst I'm happy to talk to my students about "hedging" because it's an important concept for them to grasp and one not easily expressed in other words, I'm more likely to remind them to “explain the background to a topic” rather than talking about “contextualisation”. It's a fine line to tread though and one I agonise over frequently, both in the classroom and at my desk. How often do I find myself consciously avoiding a term, then to only give up later and include it because it’s getting too messy to explain in other words? Is metalanguage helpful and necessary or just confusing? And how much is too much?

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Blogger Tyson Seburn said...

I find this post interesting and relevant, Julie, for more than one reason.

I was actually surprised at your description of attitudes towards education during your youth. Mine was around the same time, but quite opposite. I clearly remember a heavy focus on grammar and spelling up until high school. We often had to code sentences into their grammar terms (e.g. put a squiggly line under nouns, straight underline under verbs, round brackets around relative clauses, etc.).

When it comes to metalanguage, I often think it comes down to determining what is helpful and what is a barrier to communicating a point to the students. It can be ultimately easier to learn the one word (meta) instead of repeatedly using the description (frequent language), no?

Of course, there's that whole other side of determining the fine line between what is frequently and contextually relevant meta language and what is just meta language in language classrooms. Is objectivity in its various word forms something that will be used throughout their academia? Probably. Is hedging? Probably not.

Lots to consider as I begin the new academic year.

1:52 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Thanks for your comment, Tyson.

You're right about the issue in EAP of terms, like 'objectivity', that are more generally part of academic thought/discourse, so often useful and relevant to teach on that basis.

For me, one of the problems is, that whilst arguments can be made for or against each individual term, I sometimes just end up with a page of material that seems to be full of potentially off-putting terminology and I pity the poor student who's faced with it. It's slightly easier in the classroom because you can introduce terms gradually, glossing over some ideas at the start and introducing the correct terms later, but in a textbook, you have to be consistent with your terminology from the start and you risk putting the student off in unit 1!

9:09 am  

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