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The Role of Metalinguistic Awareness in the Effective Teaching of Foreign Languages

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Anthony David Roberts

Attempts to explain children’s ability to focus on language as medium rather than message have varied dramatically over the years. Studies in the field of metacognition have shown that this has a bearing on children’s growing metalinguistic awareness. Conversely, children’s ability to reflect upon and control their own use of language has been seen to have a bearing on the emergence of general metacognitive processes. However, significant differences have emerged not only in the interpretation of the research findings but also in the attempt to reconcile such findings with those of traditional anecdotal sources and to create more explanatory theoretical models.
Starting with a critical review of the various theoretical approaches in the area of metacognition, this book explores in detail a socio-cultural approach, examining the origin, function and cognitive status of metalinguistic awareness. By elaborating and refining the analysis of writers such as Vygotsky in the light of new developments in relevant fields, the author also seeks to outline a model which can be applied to the pedagogic process. The book will be of interest to students and scholars of children’s language development, applied linguistics and cognitive psychology, as well as to teachers of foreign languages at all levels.

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Chapter 1Metacognitive and metalinguistic processing 9

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Chapter 1 Metacognitive and metalinguistic processing 1.0. Metalinguistic awareness: terminological considerations The term ‘metalinguistic’ is a relatively recent one which can probably be traced back to Jakobson’s (1963) definition of one of the secondary func- tions of language, that is, the need to develop a language to ‘talk about’ language.1 Jakobson’s definition of the term did not necessarily imply knowl- edge of a complex or technical metalanguage but, rather, a ‘… ref lexive attitude with regard to language objects and their manipulation’, that is, a capacity to switch attention from the communicative goals of language to the formal means of their expression. It is this distinction between the primary linguistic ability of ‘knowing’ a language and the secondary (or ‘metalinguistic’) ability of ‘knowing that one knows it’ that demarcates metalinguistic awareness as a field of enquiry in its own right. It is cap- tured most graphically perhaps in Luria’s (1988/1946) transparent-opaque metaphor, when comparing language to a pane of glass, reformulated and refined more recently by writers such as Hakes (1980), Garton and Pratt (1989) and Bowey (1988: 3):2 When language is used for comprehension and production of speech, attention is focussed on meaning, on the goal of communication and the language system is ‘transparent’ with tacit knowledge being used to generate or comprehend utterances. In metalinguistic activity, however, language itself becomes the object of thought. This requires that the language become opaque, requiring meaning to be separated from or subordinate to the contemplation of language structure or form. Apart...

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