Non-native English speaking JD students: international students and 1.5 generation students

My mandate and jurisdiction, since I started at St. John’s Law School in the summer of 2014, has been to work with the LLM students, i.e., the non-native English speakers. And over that time my role has evolved from being a “legal English” teacher to becoming an academic support professional whose students’ primary (but not only) support need is language-related.

However, more and more I find myself coming in contact with non-native English speakers in the JD student body. Some are international students who applied directly to the JD program, either after graduating from a university in their home country or perhaps first attending a university in the US. Some are LLM-to-JD transfer students who started out as international students in the LLM program and subsequently transferred to the JD program after completing their LLM degree. And some are 1.5 generation students.

According to the Stanford University Teaching/Writing website, “generation 1.5 refers to students who are U.S. residents or citizens but whose first or home language was not English, although for some of these students, English does in fact function as their primary language.”

As a result, I have been trying to think of ways to provide language-related support for these students. But they’re in a tricky position. As non-native English speakers, they lack an intuitive sense of what sounds right. Grammar and punctuation issues aren’t just a matter of cleaning up sloppy usage for them. So in their writing, they may be penalized for language/grammar issues in their papers, yet school policies limit their ability to get outside help on a graded assignment to ensure that all work turned in is that of the students. Continue reading

Using criminal law role-play to teach oral lawyering skills

Professor Anne Himes teaches courses on Criminal Law and Business Organizations in the American Law: Discourse & Analysis (ALDA) Program* for LL.M. students at St. John’s Law School. She has an English language teaching certificate from The New School, an M.A. and B.A. in German from the University of North Carolina, and a JD from Columbia Law School. She was previously a partner in the corporate department at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP, a premier international law firm.

*The ALDA Program specializes in teaching LL.M. students substantive law with integrated language support. All four ALDA professors have a combination of extensive language teaching experience and legal practice experience.

In the Fall 2018 semester I taught an overview of US criminal law and the criminal justice process for St. John’s ALDA students that culminated in a new court role-play activity I designed in response to student difficulties with the main course materials on the criminal justice process side of things: New York Times articles that followed the shooting of an unarmed man by an off-duty NY police officer from the time of the incident all the way through the verdict of the jury.   

Those readings grew out of my searching for a way to put a face on our criminal justice process. I have found that random observation trips to court are hit or miss at best and certainly cannot show a full trial, much less the full criminal justice process; the best trial observation experience I have had with my students so far has been hearing the full testimony of an expert witness.

I had my students read and study those news articles, and we had in-depth discussions of them, but those news articles got us only so far.  The students struggled with some of the language, such as taking words literally and not considering them in context, and had understandable difficulty with the cultural/geographic issues –  a road rage incident, with racial overtones, on the Fourth of July, in a rough neighborhood. In short, they seemed to be getting a bit bogged down.

I landed on the idea of having the students  role-play the crucial part of the trial they had been reading about: the direct and cross-examination of the prosecution’s main witness (girlfriend of the victim, who witnessed the killing) and the direct and cross-examination of the defendant, who took the stand in his own defense. The students would take on roles of the lawyers and the key witnesses in a case that they were by then very familiar with. Continue reading

IRAC, mirroring and language control for LLM students in legal writing

“Lacks control of language” — This is one of those feedback comments that sounds incisive and succinct to us writing instructors but which, for non-native English speakers, is actually very subjective. It describes a writer who isn’t communicating her ideas in a clear or accurate manner.

In my writing work with LLM students, we work on the fundamentals of IRAC-style essays in the context of law school exams. And I work with my students on an idea we call “mirroring,” which means that certain key words from the Rule section need to also be present in the Analysis section. And those words then need to be equated with key facts to demonstrate that such facts do or do not meet the standard set by the Rule.

However, connecting rules and facts in one sentence frequently requires students to have the grammar to connect their ideas. Otherwise, the sentences come out as separate, seemingly disconnected statements. That is, they lack control of their writing. Also, when students lack confidence in their control of their writing, they often avoid the language they need to connect rule and facts, and the Analysis can end up just being a recitation of the facts followed by a leap to a conclusion. Continue reading

Recent innovations in academic support for LLMs at St. John’s

With each additional year I work at St. John’s Law School, my role seems to evolve increasingly from “legal English” teaching toward a larger umbrella category of “academic support for non-native English speaking LLM students,” with language support of course being a significant component.

This is because, while much of my direct teaching has been with “pre-LLM” students (i.e., our 4-week summer English for American Law School (EALS) course; our concurrent Spring EALS course; and our full semester ALDA legal English program), my colleagues and I have recognized that the majority of our LLM students still have continuing language and academic support needs and areas for improvement throughout their time in the program. This shift has grown in part out of conversations I’ve had with our legal English counterparts at Georgetown Law, who have been offering extensive legal English support to their LLMs for some years now. And it’s also benefited from interactions with our very collaborative Dean of Academic Achievement, Susan Landrum, whose focus is on JD students but frequently has tuned us in to helpful resources and best practices in the field of academic support in general as well as the existence of a large and collaborative community of law school academic support professionals.

Armed with increased awareness and knowledge, the challenge has been to somehow squeeze in substantive ongoing language support while also adapting other forms of academic support for non-native English speaking LLM students (and also for the increasing number of international JD students) without burdening or interfering with students’ already busy schedules and coursework. To that end, here are some of the solutions I and my Office of Graduate Studies colleagues have developed:

1. Conversation Partners Program: Native English speaking JD student volunteers are matched with LLM students who express interest in having a Conversation Partner. (This includes my ALDA students who are required to have a Conversation Partner.) A key “innovation” that I think has helped encourage participation is setting 15 minutes as the amount of time for Conversation Partners to meet (as opposed to an hour or 30 minutes). Also, building relationships with and soliciting JD student volunteers from student groups such as the International Law Student Association and the Multi-lingual Legal Alliance.

2. Written Language Feedback Project: Currently, two Writing Fellows from the law school’s Writing Center are now providing written language feedback to a sample group of 8 students from the LLM Legal Research & Writing course during the semester with guidance and oversight from me. Continue reading

A simple yet sophisticated vocabulary trick for getting to know a legal English word

As my Legal Writing students reminded me the other day, it’s one thing to know a word when reading. It’s another to figure out how to use it correctly in writing.

In this case, the troublesome legal English word is “precedent.”  Below are a few sample sentences from my students’ writing with attempts to use the word:

  1. According to the precedent case, the police officer’s supervisor issued a ticket to a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground.”
  2. The precedent shows that coffee poured on the ground is not litter while a candy wrapper is litter.”
  3. The precedent is the police officer’s supervisor has issued a ticket to a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground.”
  4. One precedent is that a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground was issued a littering ticket.”

Grammatically, these sentences are fine. Yet, as a native English speaker and teacher of legal writing, the use of “precedent” sounds decidedly off. But why? What you might find yourself saying is, “It just doesn’t sound right.” Yet that feels like an insufficient explanation given that the fundamental ability a non-native English speaker lacks is the ability to know what sounds right.

So what is a legal writing professor of LLM students to do? Continue reading

The Art of Law and Language

I am very excited about three new posters that will be up in the Office of Graduate Studies soon on the walls right outside my office, and right by my extensive reading library.

1. The first is “Mother Tongues and Queens: The World’s Language Capital,” created by the Endangered Language Alliance for use in the book Non-stop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. The map explains that the Borough of Queens (where St. John’s University is of course located) is not only the most linguistically diverse borough in NYC, but the most linguistically diverse place on the planet! It can tell you where to find the largest concentrations of speakers of Farsi, Mongolian, Greek, Uzbek, Thai, etc. in Queens. And it also includes great tidbits such as “Riker’s Island, one of the world’s largest jails, holds new languages created by gangs to evade the authorities.” Not only a stimulating resource, but a welcoming symbol to all of our non-native English speaking students who come to St. John’s Law School.

“Mother Tongues and Queens: The World’s Language Capital”

 

2. The second is Pop Chart Lab’sPop Culture Primer on Parts of Speech.” And while I appreciate all the entries, I think my favorite entry is under “Nouns” where it shows the categories of Common and Proper and has a picture of the celebrity whose name happens to be Common under both categories, listing him as “rapper” as an example of a common noun, and also as “Common” as an example of a proper noun.

“Pop Culture Primer on Parts of Speech”

3. The second is Pop Chart Lab’s “A Diagrammatical Dissertation on Opening Lines of Notable Novels.” “From Cervantes to Faulkner to Pynchon, each sentence has been painstakingly curated and diagrammed by PCL’s research team, parsing classical prose by parts of speech and offering a partitioned, color-coded picto-grammatical representation of some of the most famous first words in literary history.”

“A Diagrammatical Dissertation on Opening Lines from Notable Novels”

I appreciate the language and graphic design of all three posters on a personal level and also like that they communicate the significance of language in the context of the legal environment, where language literally is power.

But my real hope is that students, when waiting in our office or in need of distraction, will engage with the language-related content in ways that are helpful to their own language development. In that regard, it can serve as a passive, non-threatening way to spark language-related interactions and conversations, especially with students who might otherwise feel reluctant to identify themselves as wanting language support. Because after all, sparking conversations is one of the main purposes of art.

 

 

 

 

What Should I Do This Summer to Prepare for My LL.M. Program?

One of my LL.B. students in China asked me what she should do this summer to prepare for her LL.M. program. Here is a longer, written version of some tips that I gave her.

  1. Make Sure You Are Set Logistically. You ideally want to have your housing completed before you arrive in the United States. Does your university have a Facebook/Whatsapp/WeChat group for student housing? I think arranging housing before you arrive is one less major headache you will have to worry about, and am always surprised when I hear students arrive in America and start the housing search as they begin classes. Dormitories are likely more expensive than off-campus housing in most university areas, so you may have to ask around to find housing from abroad. Another surprising expense is the cost of buying casebooks. Are you going to buy expensive new books or used books? Are there current students at your school who can help you with that?

 

  1. Get Introduced to American J.D. Students. I say this all the time, but it is easier to become friends with Americans you already know than to start introducing yourself in the United States. If you still don’t have any American connections, ask your law school to be introduced to an American J.D. student or two. Share some of your hobbies or the area of law you are most interested in so that the school can try to match you. I recommend asking to be introduced to rising 2L (second-year) students. The students who just finished 3L will be preparing for the Bar Exam, and the rising 1L students will already be worried about On-Campus Interviews (OCI).

 

  1. Speak With Your LL.B. Alumni. Find alumni from your law school in your home country who went to America for LL.M. or J.D. programs. Ask them what they wish they knew before they arrived, and what advice they would give a new student. Better if you can find someone who went to your undergraduate law school and the same American law school. Successful students will be able to share great tips on their experiences, in the classroom and outside the classroom. Ask your undergraduate school if they can help you. This way, you will make a connection that you may not yet have had in your native country.

Continue reading