Activating Bilingual Learners’ Metabilingual Awareness

By: Sonia W. Soltero, PhD

Professor of Bilingual-Bicultural Education

Department Chair, Leadership, Language and Curriculum

DePaul University


For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with language, and because I am lucky to be biliterate I am able to extend that fascination to my two languages, Spanish and English, constantly discovering and exploring new and exciting connections. As a former dual language teacher, now teacher-educator and professional developer, I have tried to impart to my students and fellow educators that very same love and passion for multilingualism and biliteracy.


Including instructional practices that help language learners develop metacognition, metalinguistic awareness and metacultural awareness (see Figure 1) have proven effective in increasing their biliteracy skills, academic achievement, sociocultural competences, and socio-emotional well-being. To extend these “meta” concepts, I coined the term “metabilingual awareness” that more explicitly integrates how two or more languages interact, influence each other, and can be used simultaneously (Soltero, 2016). I define metabilingual awareness as the ability of a bilingual or multilingual speaker to consciously reflect and analyze the similarities and differences between their languages, and the ability to manipulate these languages while maintaining the grammatical structures of each language and conveying the intended meaning.

An integral part of developing metabilingual awareness is the systematic and intentional use of cross-linguistic connections strategies in the language classroom (sometimes referred to as “bridging”). Cross-linguistic connections engage students in understanding and making use of morphological, phonological, syntactic, semantic and pragmatic differences and similarities between two or more languages (Soltero, 2016). These cross-linguistic connections should be in the form of planned lessons but also happen throughout the day as ‘teachable moments’ when opportunities come up in the course of discussions, lessons, while reading/writing to make those comparison/contrasts between the two languages. I call these the 2-minute mini-lessons. Important to note is that a consistent coloring-coding system for each language provides useful scaffolding in these lessons.


Language Categories for Cross-Linguistic Connections


  1. Morphological

Engage bilingual learners in exploring and learning about cognates (words in two languages with similar spelling, pronunciation, meaning) and false cognates (words in two languages with similar spelling, pronunciation, but different meaning) through strategies like cognate and false cognate word banks, cognate detective, poems, word games, word sorts, word origins, etc. There is much more to explore in this category beyond cognates, such as similarities in prefixes/suffixes, differences in gendered languages (Spanish and French are gendered but English is not), what exists in one language but not in another (contractions such as can’t in English do not exist in Spanish), differences in verb conjugations, common word patterns (in English CVC while in Spanish CVCV), etc.


  1. Syntactic

Students should develop understanding about the differences and similarities between two languages such as word order, grammatical rules about the use of double negatives (in Spanish it is permissible but not in English), possessive nouns (Cristina’s book in English but in Spanish it would be the book of Cristinael libro de Cristina), and differences in capitalization and punctuation. These types of syntactical cross-linguistic connections can be incorporated when students are engaged in the writing process, especially during the editing/revising stages, and can also be modeled during teacher think-aloud lessons.


  1. Phonological

For language programs that use languages that are alphabetic-based, students can engage in contrasting letters and letter sounds as well understanding the nature of word formation (blending individual phonemes in English vs. blending syllables in Spanish), in addition to features that exist in one language but not the other (silent e in English does not exist in other languages). Phonological cross-linguistic connections are particularly well suited when teaching about the letter-sound relationship and decoding, as well as spelling lessons.


  1. Semantic

Teachers and students can compare a number of semantic features between the two languages including idioms, literal vs. figurative language, similarities in literary genres and text structures (narrative and expository texts have the same elements in most languages), stylistic discourse differences (English discourse is linear, romance languages tend to meander, and many Asian languages are spiral in nature). Semantic cross-linguistic connections lend themselves well to exploring problems with translations, and why it is that literal translation often does not convey the intended meaning. For example, idioms do not translate well from one language to another and often become humorous nonsense when translated.


  1. Pragmatics

Cross-linguistic connections related to pragmatics include both paralinguistic aspects such as gestures, body language, proximity, eye contact, etc., and linguistic features such as how to convey formality (in Spanish using tu or usted, while in English this is conveyed through choice of words). Comparisons related to differences/similarities in pragmatics between the two languages can be explored while reading authentic children’s and young adult literature.


The Cultural Lens

Engaging students in contrasting their languages within the five categories described above should always incorporate relevant cultural aspects of each language, particularly around morphology, semantics and pragmatics. In addition, for languages like Spanish that have such diversity in regional varieties, there should also be exploration of cultural influences on regional “Spanishes”, including “Spanishes” of the US as well as exploring word origins. For example, tomate (tomato) comes from the Nahuatl word tomatl, the word aceite (oil) comes from the Arabic word zayt.


Metabilingual awareness includes the ability to manipulate languages in creative ways that reflect a growing sophistication of students’ command of their two or more languages. Inventing bilingual jokes is one way to do that (Figure 2). Helping bilingual learners to develop high levels of metabilingual awareness provides them the necessary foundation for their biliteracy to flourish and more importantly for them to become fascinated by the magic of multilingualism.


Figure 2: A bilingual joke


Soltero, S. W. (2016).  Dual language education: Program design and implementation. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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