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Language pairs sound and meaning. Metalinguistics is about the recognition of this relation. And metalinguistic limitations are a common co-morbidity of any sort 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, this shows metalinguistic awareness. When a child corrects him or herself, and children start doing this very early in their language development, or enjoying deliberate nonsense as part of a fun game, it shows that the child is becoming metalinguistically aware.

Metalinguistics is evidenced in ways, such as these

  • It 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.
  • It 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 case of longer words.
  • It 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 word is just that.
  • Realising that there is a sound which they cannot say, and avoiding it carefully and studiously, as by the six year old who consistently replaces Y by L, saying “What do you mean? as “What do LOO mean?” is asked “What colour is a banana?” and solemnly replies  “Orange”.

Children with poor metalinguistics characteristically have a poor idea of how words are built – and of the differences between what is allowed 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 two vowels different. For most normally developing children of six, seven or eight, the similarity is obvious.