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‘So meta.’ How much grammar terminology and jargon do teachers need?

Lindsay Clandfield is a Canadian trainer, teacher and award-winning author. He is a tutor on our Trinity DipTESOL course and the Course Director of our teacher development courses.He’s the lead author of Macmillan’s critically-acclaimed coursebook Global, and the force behind the popular blog Six Things. Has written numerous books for learners and specialist books for teachers in addition to being a frequent speaker at international conferences for English language teachers. In this blog post he explores just how much terminology and jargon teachers need. 

‘I don’t see why on Earth I need to know these terms, since I never use them with my students. Ever.’ This is one variation of a common comment I read and hear from English teachers when it comes to using metalanguage.

It’s a position I can certain sympathize with, having often thought it myself when coming across certain terms. But it’s also problematic. In this short article, I’d like to take a closer look at the pros and cons of using specialized language in English language teaching.

Metalanguage is language that we use to talk about language. Put simply, when you say things like ‘in question forms you need to use an auxiliary verb before the subject’ the words question forms, auxiliary verb and subject are all examples of metalanguage.

What are the advantages of using metalanguage?

If you grew up and went to school in an English-speaking country, it’s quite possible that you didn’t get much grammatical metalanguage as part of your education. English native speakers are notorious for not really knowing many grammatical terms.

This is not the case for every other language though. If your learners already know metalanguage about their own language (words for the parts of speech, for verb tenses and things like subjectivity) then using the English for these terms can be helpful to highlight distinctions or similarities.

Describing language rules using metalanguage can also help the analytic learner, the kind of person who wants to know ‘why’ things are the way they are. Now, of course, we know that English has lots of exceptions and that sometimes – sometimes – things are the way they are ‘just because’.

But there are also lots of rules behind the things we say, and having the terms to describe those rules can be comforting and even empowering for certain learners, as it can help them make sense of things.

Metalanguage can also be empowering for the teacher. Being able to say, for example, that “‘This car is belonging to me’ sounds wrong because belong is a stative verb and we don’t usually use stative verbs in the continuous form,” makes you sound a lot more knowledgeable than “It sounds wrong because people wouldn’t say that”.

What are the disadvantages of using metalanguage?

To start with there’s just so much of it. The Cambridge Grammar of English weighs in at almost 1000 pages; Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage has just over 650 pages and Martin Parrott’s Grammar for English Teachers is over 500 pages. Learning all of the terms does seem like a daunting task.

To make things more complex, there are some terms favoured more by British grammar books (continuous as in the continuous aspect) and some terms favoured more by American grammar books (progressive as in the progressive aspect). In addition, most coursebooks – in the interest of being more accessible to learners –  do not use all the grammatical terms.

For example, you rarely see words like complement, adverbial or predicate in coursebooks.

Another disadvantage of metalanguage is overuse. Jargon or specialized language can make you sound not only smart, but as if you belong to a community. Novice or insecure teachers may therefore abuse the use of jargon in order to ‘prove’ their credentials, whereas very experienced and confident teachers may eschew it as unnecessary.

It’s also true that too much metalanguage can cloud the issue and make language seem too abstract. Which of these is more appropriate for low level learners: ‘You should inflect the verb for third person singular in present simple’ or ‘For he/she/it add -s to the verb in present simple’?

Finally, the use of metalanguage can all too often lead to long-winded, teacher-fronted explanations. There is a risk, when this happens, that little or no time is left for learners to actually use the language themselves.

This is borne out by the all-too-common complaint of learners that they know all the grammar rules (because the teacher explained them over and over again) but they can’t speak in English.

How much is the right amount?

This of course is the key question. The answer, like so many things, is it depends! Often it depends on the context of your teaching. Adult learners who know a lot of metalanguage for talking about their own language might benefit from this kind of analysis or explanation.

With children, most metalanguage is avoided. One of the other things I’ve noticed is that many English teachers who complain about learning new terms already use a lot of metalanguage (think of all the names for the verb forms you’re comfortable using). It may be the case that we’re comfortable using metalanguage we know well, and resist using it for things we are unsure about.

My personal feeling is that the more a teacher knows about language, the better. It isn’t a bad thing to know more specific and specialized terms than what is usually presented in EFL coursebooks or grammar books for learners.

However, knowing something and using something are two different things. It may be that we need follow the Goldilocks principle: have just the right amount!

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