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Making Metalanguage Great Again

by Dr Mattie Langwich

A clear validation of the pedagogical efficacy of linguistically- and metalinguistically-rich classroom instruction has recently laid to rest any residual doubts as to the usefulness of this once contentious mode of instruction.

The research focussed on the voiced ~ voiceless alternation in fricatives in English inflectional and derivational word-building processes. As a salient part of the English grammatical system, this underpins lexemes with high frequency across a variety of genres. The alternation is seen (only with labiodentals) in certain irregular plurals (knife ~ knives, wife ~ wives) as well as (with interdentals, labiodentals and alveolars) in derivational noun ~ verb alternations (take a brea[θ] ~ brea[ð]e easily; li[f]e ~ l[ɪv]e; it’s no u[s]e ~ need to u[z]e).

A group of true beginner (fewer than 3 weeks’ English learning experience) L1 Quechua teenagers (n = 31) was selected to undergo the intervention. Three weeks of instruction (in Quechua) followed in basic phonetics, with a focus on the voiced ~ voiceless distinction, after which three further weeks of instruction (again in Quechua) was given in basic morphology, focussing on lexicalist and non-lexicalist theoretical models distinguishing inflection and derivational word building processes. Thereafter, the cohort read Shakespeare’s Hamlet1 for a further two weeks using second wave feminist and post-feminist critical theory as a conceptual framework for motivating the discussion. In addition to discussion, tasks included acting out certain scenes as well as underlining relevant voiced and voiceless forms and discussing whether they represented inflectional or derivational word-building processes.

On completing Hamlet and acting out the final scene with real swords, an immediate post-intervention test (in Quechua) was deployed consisting of MCQs as follows:

  1. Is Hamlet from Denmark?
    [yes]   [no]   [don’t know]

  2. What is the plural of ‘wife’ in English?
    [Hamlets]   [wives]   [Denmarks]

  3. Did you enjoy underlining words in the text of Hamlet?
    [yes]   [no]   [don’t know]

  4. Is ‘use’ in the sentence ‘I have no use for Hamlet’ a noun or a verb?
    [verb]   [don’t know]   [noun]

  5. How did you work out the answer to question 4?
    [Denmark]   [Hamlet]   [presence/absence of voicing in the <s> fricative]

In order to maintain motivation and focus throughout the test, students were allowed to phone a friend, go 50/50 or ask the test administrator up to 5 times. 89% of answers were correct.

After 6 months, students were asked to participate in a role play about a dirty knife in a restaurant. The role play contained 5 instances of ‘knife’ and 5 instances of ‘knives’. 29 students produced the appropriate form 8 or more out of 10 times, 1 student 7 times, and 1 student 0 times due to replying in Quechua.2

These startling results will shortly be published in the journal International Journal of Voicing in Fricatives and Second Language Acquisition. However, the buzz around the findings is already being felt in the industry with language schools across Peru adopting pedagogies based on or derived from this approach.

1 The play Hamlet was selected as the final scene involves a knife fight (actually a sword fight, but hey, details) with more than one knife (see previous parenthetical comment). This thematic connection to a prototype in the study adds cognitive resonance for the participants, thus contributing to a more holistic experience.

2 Although this student did bring a knife to the role play.

Dear Grammy, Un Koala If-Eyed
What is SpecGram Doing in Response to COVID-19?The SpecGram Pandemic Response Team Interns
SpecGram Vol CLXXXVII, No 2 Contents