How metalinguistically-aware are we?

This afternoon, I posted 2 language awareness questions on FB, and got very enthusiastic responses from my FB friends.

Question 1: Which sentence is more likely to be said by native speakers? (a) Here’s a few things to remember. (b) Here are a few things to remember.

Question 2: “You got all the answers, _____ you?”  (AmE) =================================

For Question 1, most responses went for (a), and a small number, including 1 native speaker, opted for (b). For Question 2, the answers attempted included ‘ain’t’, ‘didn’t’, ‘aren’t and ‘haven’t’. (The word that I’ve actually heard is ‘don’t’, though a former student who is now residing in the States remarked that ‘ain’t’ would also be likely used, especially by African and Latino Americans.) Actually, I was more interested in the language awareness dimension – how metalinguistically-aware are we, both native speakers and second language users, about language matters? For the 2 questions I posed, I was more curious about whether people had ever noticed the issues, rather than the ‘correct’ answers. My curiosity is motivated by my work in second language (L2) teacher education. There is now enough research evidence showing that highly successful L2 learners are also people who possess a high level of language awareness, which Ronald Carter (2003) of the UK has defined as ‘the development of an enhanced consciousness of, and sensitivity to, the forms and functions of language’.

The questions themselves, in particular Question 1, were rather crude and hence not fair to the respondents. A richer context should have been provided for the 2 questions. For example, it is quite likely that many native speakers will say ‘Here’s a few things …’ in informal, spontaneous, speech, though I don’t have any hard data to back up my assertion. In more formal situations when speakers are more conscious of their speech, they might go for the traditional ‘Here are a few things …’.

One FB friend wondered whether this has to do with the distinction between spoken English and written English. However, this kind of differentiation is becoming harder and harder to make, because it is also fashionable now for writers to adopt a more chatty style in writing. I was flipping through a book called ‘The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth behind Extraordinary Results’. This is not a comic or a joke book; it has a serious theme, which is how to become more successful in life. Yet, the 2 writers have used contractions (we’ll; I’d; she’s, here’s, etc.) throughout the whole book. (In fact, I stumbled on the sentence ‘Here’s a few things to remember’ in the book, which prompted me to post the questions on Facebook.)

Yet in Hong Kong, the ‘correct’ form that we teach in school is ‘Here are a few (+ plural noun phrase)’, as if ‘Here’s a few …’ never existed. This is the form that is presented in English textbooks, and which teachers are familiar with. Hence, although most responses to my Question 1 went for ‘Here’s a few ….’, I couldn’t help wondering: If I hadn’t specified that I was asking a language awareness question, would the respondents, most of whom are English teachers in Hong Kong, have noticed that issue? Could they have chosen ‘Here’s a few …’ BECAUSE I asked the question? For example, if the sentence ‘Here’s a few …’  appeared in their students’ compositions, would it get corrected to ‘Here are a few …’?

But there’s another aspect to the mystery. If a language issue is brought to our consciousness, such as when we’re asked by an L2 learner to judge the grammaticality of an utterance, we might draw on our propositional knowledge in deciding on its acceptability. For instance, we might vaguely remember the Subject-Verb Agreement rule we learnt in primary school, and so reason that we should say ‘Here are a few …’. But does our conscious judgement reflect what we would actually say in spontaneous, unprepared, speech? That’s why in second language acquisition investigations, researchers would sometimes use a method called elicitation rather than direct questioning. They would communicate naturally with the subjects, secretly eliciting the target utterances from the respondents without their knowing.

To return to the point about the importance of language awareness I made earlier, Professor Stephen Andrews of the University of Hong Kong has been strongly advocating language awareness training for teachers (which he has called Teacher Language Awareness, or TLA). I personally think TLA has not been given the attention it deserves in teacher training programmes. One indication is the way that teachers handle grammar teaching, which has often stayed at the level of direct explanation of often over-simplified ‘rules’. Examples:

– “We use the Past Simple for talking about a short action. We use the Past Continuous for talking about a long action.”

– “We use the ‘-ing’ adjective to describe the feeling that something causes, hence an interesting book; an exciting film, etc., We use the ‘-ed’ adjective to describe someone’s feeling, hence ‘He is bored’; ‘The children were interested’; etc.”

– “The first time we mention a person or a thing, use ‘a’. The second time we mention the person or thing, use ‘the’.”

Actually, beyond the post-beginner level, many language items cannot be easily summarised as hard-and-fast rules. Which grammar item to choose often hinges on a host of factors, such as the situation, the level of formality, the intended communicative effect, the relationship between the interlocutors, etc. Even with the more purely language form issues (such as Subject-Verb agreement; the form of plural nouns; Third-person singular subject with the Simple Present tense; the form of the past tense verb), it might be more effective to provide learners (from upper primary onward) with language samples and guide them to discover the underlying patterns. This approach, when applied over a period of time, will have the chance of raising students’ general language awareness, so that beyond primary school, they will be able to ‘pick up’ lots of new language features which they notice (because of their enhanced sensitivity) in the language they come into contact with.

Think about the most successful ESL learners. How, and from where, did they learn their English?

=== Acknowledgement: After I posted the 2 questions, a FB friend, Anthony Ince, found the following two newspaper extracts on the web and sent them to me: here's a few things vs here are a few things

here's a few things vs here are a few things V2


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