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.

The case of 1.5 generation students can be even trickier. Typically, they prefer to avoid the stigma of any ESL categorization. And they generally sound like native English speakers. Yet they may have gaps in their academic level English with regard to word choice and grammar. But often these gaps are fossilized. That is, they are so embedded in their use of language, that they “sound right” to the student and are can difficult to change. For that reason, asking a student in this category to read her paper out loud as a way to clean up language errors may have limited benefits. Such students need corrective feedback, just as an international non-native English speaking student would.

In the case of international students, they’re often relatively easier to identify since they typically have gone to college or high school in another country and may not sound like non-native English speakers when they speak. However, in the case of 1.5 generation students, there are often few if any overt indicators since they generally sound fluent in English when speaking.

Therefore, it is the writing assignments of 1.5 generation students that can be helpful in identifying those in need of language support. The writing may reflect gaps in academic level English. Perhaps word choices that sound off in some way. Or a recurring issue with count/non-count nouns despite an otherwise fluent and sophisticated writing style.

It is through a student’s writing that I stumbled into the 1.5 generation issue in our school. I was chatting with a legal writing professor of JD students who was in the midst of grading papers and I happened to mention the concept of 1.5 generation students in an unrelated context. She then stopped and said, “I have a student who fits that category. I can’t believe I didn’t think to talk to you about it.” That has led to an ongoing discussion about how we might be able to provide appropriate support for that student as well as for other 1.5 generation and international students in the JD program and may benefit from language support in some form.

As a result, I look forward in the coming semester to venturing out beyond my natural LLM territorial boundaries, learning more about language needs that may exist among the JD student population, and devising creative and effective forms of support. In the process, I also hope to raise awareness among law school faculty and staff so that they’ll think turn to me and my colleagues if they become aware of any student in need of additional language support.

In the twenty or so years since I graduated from law school, law schools have become increasingly adept at being aware of a long list of JD student support needs and addressing them effectively. Hopefully, language support will become a regular and recognized item on that list going forward as well.

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