On “Legal English”

TaleTwoCities“It was the best of terms, it was the worst of terms.”
(With sincerest apologies to Charles Dickens)

“Legal English” is a rather loaded term. Much like “family values” or “activist judges,” its meaning is vague, subjective, and dependent on the context as well as brain of the person ingesting the phrase.

For some, it means teaching a very stripped-down version of legal writing and legal concepts. For others, it means an ESL course that focuses on law-related vocabulary and situations. It can also refer equally to a brush-up course for practicing lawyers taught at a private language school as well as a summer course designed to prepare incoming LL.M. students for the law school experience.

In each instance,the vocabulary, discourse, background knowledge, grammar, and related skills that a student must absorb may vary greatly.

legal_english Georgetown Law’s Craig Hoffman, in his 2011 article Using Discourse Analysis Methodology to Teach “Legal English”, attempts to address the insufficiency of the term “legal English” and replace it in the context of his teaching with the term “legal discourse analysis.” In addition to his enlightened and inspiring approach, the term he chooses is both more descriptive and more accurate with regard to what he does and how it helps students.

However, his inclusion of the term “legal English” in quotes acknowledges the same conclusion we at the St. John’s Legal English Blog have also reached, which is that “legal English” is ultimately “the best of terms” to use because it’s the most intrinsically clear and familiar and conveys, at least very generally, what it is we’re focusing on and why a given person should (or should not) care. All other combinations, permutations, and transmogrifications seem to cause either confusion or the glazing over of eyes.

But don’t just take our word for it. Try it yourself with words such as:

  • law
  • legal
  • law school
  • English
  • American
  • linguistics
  • international
  • transnational
  • discourse
  • education

lawn-mower-clip-art-251171We are willing to be that whatever you come up with will end up being overly vague, specific, misleading, or too wordy.

(FYI, the best mash-up term out there might be LAWnLinguistics, the name of a blog on the topic of law and linguistics written by a lawyer named Neil Goldfarb. Yet even that clever fusion tends to initially induce images of suburban greenery, which he acknowledges explicitly in his tagline: “Not about the linguistics of lawns.”)

So yes, we have, with some misgivings, chosen to incorporate the term “legal English” into our blog title in order to best connect with and appeal to our imagined constituency.

However, we feel somewhat redeemed with our tag line which we believe most accurately describes what we do: “Teaching at the intersection of law and language support” 

Because even non-native English speaking LL.M. students with the strongest of TOEFL and IELTS scores still have gaps in their language, background knowledge, and understanding of discourse (particularly in legal writing) that require a different kind of support than the kind provided to native-English speaking J.D. students. And the posts on this blog are our attempt to share our processes, experiments, and successes with approaches to providing this kind of support.

Our hope is that in having this conversation with the larger community of teachers and learners, we will contribute to the growth of the “legal English” field, to our own growth, and ultimately to the growth of teachers and students in our global community.

In the meantime, we look forward to input and comments from readers on any and all of our topics. And if you feel up to the challenge, we also look forward to discussion and debate on an alternative to the term “legal English.”

One thought on “On “Legal English”

  1. Pingback: Welcome! | St. John's Legal English Blog

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