As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the two best predictors of success for non-native English speakers in American graduate programs are reading comprehension and listening comprehension–both input-related. Speaking and writing ability (both output-related) often get a lot of the attention since it is through these that deficiencies can be noticed and evaluated. However, the reality is that it’s extremely difficult to speak and write well about a topic if it is not first well understood.
Between reading and listening, reading is the skill that is taught and practiced most explicitly. There are tons of materials to read. And it’s a static form, so it can be used at any speed, and it’s easy to analyze, deconstruct, look at each piece, look at patterns, etc.
Listening, on the other hand, is more elusive. Once you hear something, it goes away. And even if you have a recording, you can listen until you’re blue in the face and you still may not understand parts of what’s being said, especially given factors such as connected speech, homonyms, and variations in pronunciation. Also, similar to reading, listening is highly dependent on background knowledge. If you know something about a topic, you’re much more likely to be able to understand it as opposed to something new or unfamiliar.
One of the primary listening activities for law students is listening to lectures and class discussions coupled with taking notes. How are students supposed to practice this other than just sitting in class each time and hopefully understanding more each time? Is there any way to actually practice and prepare for the listening that’s done in lectures? Especially given that, to really understand a lecture/class discussion, you need to have studied the cases and readings ahead of time. So just sitting in a new lecture each day may not itself be so helpful for improving listening. And listening to recordings of lectures without having studied the material may be extremely challenging as well. Even if you can listen to a recording multiple times, there may be numerous parts that are difficult to understand due to pronunciation, dropped speech (e.g., the way articles and pronouns tend to be under-pronounced), connected speech, lack of background knowledge, etc.
An approach I am now trying ties in with my work with the Lefkowitz v. Great Minneapolis Surplus Store case in Contract Law. The case is a staple of most Contract Law classes and case books, and I use it as my primary vehicle for teaching students how to read and brief a case (because it is relatively short and requires relatively little background knowledge to grasp). The students read and analyze the case in a variety of ways: they look at case briefs of the case written by different people and analyze those for language and discourse patterns; they analyze the court opinion itself for discourse patterns; they learn to notice grammar clues that help them identify the parts of a case; they study the vocabulary of the case; they notice and identify the referential language and other clues used to signal that information is coming from an outside source; they listen to a recording of the court opinion being read out loud by me; they even listen to and read the transcript of a recorded conversation between myself and a JD student about the case.
Recently, however, I decided to add another layer and dimension. I received permission from one our Contract Law professors to sit in on his class the day Lefkowitz was to be discussed so that I could record the discussion. It was a wonderful experience. The professor speak clearly, but moved quickly. He addressed students by their last names in a formal, yet friendly, manner. He was serious yet maintained a levity in the class that kept everyone engaged and on their toes. It was the Platonic ideal of the Socratic Method-style class discussion in law school.
Now that I have a recording of it (about 25 minutes) and have typed up the transcript (using oTranscribe.com which I only recently discovered), I am excited to be able to use the recording in multiple ways to help the students gain insight into how a case is used in a law class, why students need to brief cases, what professors are looking for, how they ask questions and express their opinions, and–perhaps more importantly–the language students use to “fill the room with their intelligence” (as Professor Kingsfield intones in the opening scene of the film The Paper Chase). This last category–student speech in class discussions–can be particularly elusive as LLM students do not get much exposure to it prior to beginning law school, it is not generally included in recordings of lectures by professors, is often harder to hear than the professor’s words, and contains a mix of formal and informal language that can be challenging for non-native English speakers.
Armed with a recording and a transcript, I am now well-positioned to “mine the text.” We will see how much the students understand with no assistance. We’ll review the transcript for unfamiliar vocabulary. We’ll look at discourse patterns in speech and how they differ from written discourse patterns. We’ll role play having the students read lines out loud, trying to sound like the professor or students. Once students have a better comprehension of the substance (aided by the fact that they’ll have already read and briefed the case multiple times before they listen to the recording), they’ll listen multiple times to train their ears to hear certain sounds and words, including dropped speech. They’ll practice taking notes and organizing notes. And they’ll identify and practice shorthand they can use to better take notes in Contract Law class in order to develop note taking fluency.
These are just some of the activities I plan to do. There are of course many more I haven’t even considered yet. And I’m always open to new suggestions, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any. But regardless, I’m very excited about the opportunity to help our LLM students with an aspect of law school–listening to lectures and class discussions–that is often overlooked and might otherwise be very challenging to practice on their own.