Classifying the metalanguage –

what this tells us about how we think about language,

and the implications for compulsory English education

Melanie Pope

Department of English and Drama

Loughborough University


This paper will discuss the very distinct properties of metalanguage which render it unique in language use.It is also a factor in language development almost from the beginning of language acquisition – words such as ‘say’ and ‘name’ are directed to very young children.However, the development of metalinguistic skills is not reliant upon the prior establishment of a metalanguage; it is still possible to reflect upon language as an object without having the words with which to do so.Yet conversely, the acquisition of a metalanguage necessarily facilitates the development of metalinguistic skills – a fundamental consideration for teachers of first language literacy skills.

A closer examination of the metalanguage itself reveals clear features which encourage classification by a range of criteria.Such criteria not only reveal much about the metalanguage itself, but also about the ways in which we think about language.

A range of metalinguistic skills are exposed by these classifications.Of particular interest are those which relate specifically to language in use, those that the author refers to as ‘metalinguistic discourse markers’, which reveal a speaker’s/writer’s distinct awareness of cohesion from both her own perspective as a writer, and from her audience’s viewpoint as reader.

These classifications have immediate implications for the implementation of the National Curriculum Orders for English.The paper will conclude with a consideration of the raising of language awareness in the Literacy Hour Initiative, and the teaching of English (as a native language) at Key Stages 3 and 4 in light of the range of metalinguistic functions outlined.