Metalinguistic skills involve the awareness and control of linguistic components of language. Simply put, it implies the ability to think and discuss language. These skills require an awareness of others as listeners and an ability to recognize significant details that indicate changes in speech. For example, you do not usually speak to a teacher in the same way you would speak to a friend. In addition, you do not typically speak in a restaurant the same way in which you speak in a museum. Noticing what kind of speech is appropriate in various environments with various speakers is also reflective of metalinguistic skills.
These metalinguistic skills start to develop as early as one year as your child learns to monitor their own utterances and begin to repair their breakdowns in communication when they are misheard. Before the age of two, children typically learn how to adjust their speaking to different listeners: louder vs. softer, simpler vs. complex, demanding vs. requesting and peer vs. adult. Before the age of four, children should know how to recognize signals indicating that their listener understood the message spoken (i.e., such as a nod for assent and a frown signifying confusion). Children also learn to correct their own speech as well as their conversation partners’ speech. At this age, children spend a significant amount of time exploring new sounds, new words and new speech styles. As they reach their academic years, metalinguistic development continues to improve as children gain an understanding of the specific meaningful units that are associated with language (i.e., sounds, syllables, words, sentences). As a child’s mastery of language components grows, they learn to play with humor by telling jokes, riddles and puns (e.g., “What’s black and white and red (read) all over? A newspaper!”). This indicates a desire to control the use of language that was not present in the early language of children. This manipulation of language is significantly correlated to the development of pragmatic skills or the use of language.
Development of these metalinguistic skills are essential to a child’s ability to be successful in creating enlightening conversations that will serve as foundations for further learning in their lives.