Metalanguaging Matters: Multilingual Children Engaging with “The Meta”

Metalanguaging Matters: Multilingual Children Engaging with “The Meta”

Helle Pia Laursen (Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark), Line Møller Daugaard (VIA University College, Aarhus, Denmark), Uffe Ladegaard (University College Lillebaelt, Jelling, Denmark), Winnie Østergaard (University College North Jutland, Aalborg, Denmark), Birgit Orluf (University College Lillebaelt, Odense, Denmark) and Lone Wulff (University College Capital, Copenhagen, Denmark)
DOI: 10.4018/IJBIDE.2018010103


In this article, the authors build on empirical data from the ongoing longitudinal research project Signs of language (2008 – 2018) to examine how multilingual children in a primary school setting use metalinguistic resources linked to several written languages. Grounded in social semiotics and drawing on newer social perspectives on metalanguage, the authors focus on a researcher-generated activity designed to invite the children to reflect on language and literacy. In two particular interactions, they explore how the children “engage with the meta” by navigating between different languages and sign systems, and how their use of metalinguistic resources in a referential sense is inextricably linked to a dialogically formed and performative negotiation of social identity and social relations. Thus, adopting a metalanguaging perspective, this article demonstrates how metalinguistic statements about language are closely interwoven with an ongoing production and negotiation of the communicative situation.
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In many (teaching) contexts, the basic role of language is perceived to be an exchange of information, and metalanguage is seen as “a kind of optional extra” (Cameron, 2004, p. 312). In this line of thinking, metalanguage is most often understood as a discrete, scientific register that does not represent the world directly, but instead represents representations of the world (see e.g. Van Leeuwen, 2004). This understanding makes a distinction between the language that is being addressed - the object language - and the language used to talk about the object language - the metalanguage (Carnap, 1958). Whereas the object language focuses on the signified and the content of what is being said, metalanguage focuses on the signifier and the form of the language.

In this article, we will adopt a different perspective on metalanguage, in that we do not view metalanguage as a unique register that can be isolated from other language manifestations (Verschueren, 2004), but instead view it as an integrated part of all communication, and thus also as an integrated part of the object language (Van Leeuwen, 2004). We see metalanguage as something that is done, and we see the metalinguistic dimension as a linguistic function on a par with, and connected to, other language functions. That is, even though the recognised terminology about language constitutes part of the metalinguistic dimension, the terminology far from covers the entire dimension. The metalinguistic function is often represented using verbal language resources; however, it can also be represented using other semiotic means, such as air quotes (a gesture made by raising and flexing two fingers of each hand to simulate quotation marks).

To emphasise this view on metalanguage as something that is done, in the article we will use the term metalanguaging that is inspired by the term languaging, in which the -ing form indicates activity. In this understanding of languaging, an agent performs the activity, and this agent both acts within and co-creates a social space. Moreover, we find that recent sociolinguistic perspectives on languaging offer an understanding of language that breaks with the fixed understanding of language as defined and isolated units. This understanding enables us to view students at Danish schools that are officially referred to as bilingual students not just as students “‘speaking two languages’, but as languagers making use of resources that are recognized by the speakers or others as belonging to two sets of resources” (Jørgensen & Juffermans, 2011, p.2).

In the article we examine the metalanguaging of children through a researcher-generated activity carried out in a primary school, where groups of three multilingual children talk with a research assistant about a number of texts in several different languages. Our analysis will demonstrate how the children, at one and the same time, use metalanguaging to talk about language and texts in accordance with the framing of the activity, and to form and negotiate the framework for the linguistic interaction.

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