Metalinguistics is about the conscious recognition of the relation between sound and meaning relation – as revealed by the correction of speech errors of all sorts, including those like “Not by the hair of my hinny, his hin”.
Metalinguistics plays a part in whole process of language acquisition from the first word combinations until acquisition is finally completed, typically around ten.
By the proposal here, the awareness of the sound meaning relation is fundamental. Or speech and language could not have started to evolve. It is thus not surprising that metalinguistic limitations are a common co-morbidity of many sorts of speech and language disorder.
Suppose a child, anticipating the old story, says “Not by the chair of my hinny, hin, hin,” and immediately recognises and corrects the error, it shows that the child is becoming metalinguistically aware and perhaps enjoying the nonsense. It is thus significant that children normally start correcting themselves very early in their speech and language development.
- Allows the recognition of errors of all sorts. Or what are taken to be errors. It shows when one speaker corrects another or when a speaker corrects him or herself, as when a speaker repeats him or herself with a previously missing or corrected element. There is awareness of a particular target structure, even if the speaker has difficulty realising it in full. Such a target structure (as opposed to the utterance itself) would be a meaningless entity if language were just behaviour.
- Allows patterns and similarities between words to be recognised, in the fact that they rhyme, as in cat, bat, mat, and rat, or begin with the same sound, as in knave, gnome, and nincompoop, or are the same in all respects apart from one sound or syllable in the rhythm of longer words.
- Makes it possible to recognise that a word can be pronounced in more than one way or that a word can have more than one meaning or use or that a nonsense or ‘pretend’ word is just that.
- Is evidenced by the studious avoidance of something the person can’t say. Take the six year old who replaces Y by L, who pronounces “What do you mean? as “What do LOO mean?” Metalinguistic awareness is signalled by the child answering “Orange” in response to “What colour is a banana?”
Children with poor metalinguistics have a characteristically poor idea of how words are built – and of the differences between what is allowed by the grammar and what isn’t allowed, and are unaware of the relation between a real word such as hippopotamus and a possible word which does not happen to exist such as HEPPAPUTAMUS, with the same rhythmic structure, but with the two stressed vowels different. For most normally developing children of six, seven or eight, the similarity is obvious.