Boost student learning with metalinguistic awareness

morphologyOne of the areas of linguistics that I find most fascinating is morphology. Morphology looks at how words are put together. It looks at a root word, take the noun beauty, and the small ways it can be modified to be an adjective (beautiful) or verb (beautify) or adverb (beautifully), or a totally different noun (beautification). It looks at “affixes”—word fragments that change the meaning of a word, like plural -s (cat/cats) or past tense -ed (walk/walked) and other prefixes or suffixes.

I find morphology interesting for a few reasons. It has a way of constraining word possibilities in certain, predictable ways. For example, -ness and -tion (as in sadness or motivation) are only ever noun markers. Some prefixes like im-, un-, and dis- signal the opposite meaning of the root word, like impolite, unhappy, and disobey. While there are unspoken rules about how particular affixes can be used with particular words (beautification but not beautication; unhappy but not unsad, impolite but not dispolite) the consistencies make comprehension, if not production, easier for non-native learners.

One feature of morphology blew my mind when I was learning Georgian: Instead of prepositions, Georgian uses postpositions, affixed to the end of the related word. To say, I’m going to Tbilisi, it’s Tbilisshi. To say, I’m going by car, it’s mankanit. To say, I’m going with you, it’s, shentan. If you have a gift for me, it’s chemtvis. The very existence of postpositions shocked me at first, but with time and exposure, I came to use them very naturally, which is yet more proof of how language can bend the brain.

Another fascinating thing about morphology is how the native language influences use of morphology in the second language. It is widely acknowledged that speakers of Asian languages often drop the plural –s marker in English, because such a marker does not exist in their native language. Having awareness of how particular languages impact the learning of English can be helpful for teachers to target trouble spots in their students’ learning.

Because morphology is fairly consistent, it’s worthwhile to teach learners at all levels to look for patterns in the words they encounter. Focusing on a single word a week, say, electric, and exploring all of its possible derivations (electricity, electrician, electrify, electrocute, electrocution), can help learners pick up more vocabulary in a shorter amount of time, because rule-based learning (picking up on language rules and applying them broadly) requires a smaller cognitive load than token-based learning (picking up individual words as they are encountered). Manipulating language is a skill learners need, particularly when it comes to academic language, and having confidence about how words are related and constructed is a helpful kind of metaknowledge.

For more on morphology, check out Douglas Magrath’s post on how linguistics relates to teaching ESL.

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