This past week I had the opportunity to work on language issues with a non-native English speaking JD student who was referred to me by the student’s professor. The student, who came to the US when he was 18, is doing well in law school, but has some language-related quirks popping up in his writing that didn’t seem to be fixing themselves.
Coincidentally, the previous week I happened to attend a guest lecture by Paul Kei Matsuda, Professor of Applied Linguistics and Director of Second Language Writing at Arizona State University, who is one of the thought leaders in the field of second language writing. The main theme of his lecture was that it is essentially unfair to grade second language writers on their grammar, in the sense that language is acquired in ways and at a pace that is not necessarily within our control. He likened grading such a student on their grammar to grading them on how tall they grow before graduating.
This point reminded me and reaffirmed for me the notion that you can’t know what you don’t know. In the case of the JD student, he (like all JD students) was advised to read his papers out loud to help him catch his errors. And this strategy was helpful to him in some ways, but not with regard to identifying errors that he didn’t know were errors.
The student, in his embarrassment, actually attributed the issue to the fact that when he first came to the US, he learned a lot of English from watching videos and listening to music, and he fretted that that was a mistake since he didn’t learn proper English. I quickly pointed out to the student that this was not his fault. That his way of learning English was actually a great strategy and extremely important to his language development. I also explained the concepts of BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) and how it’s much harder to acquire native level proficiency in academic English, in part because the frequency of use of and exposure to CALP is simply much lower in daily life, particularly with regard to output (i.e. speaking and writing.)
I commented that no amount of reading his writing aloud would change this. Because his ear and brain can only recognize the version of English that he knows. This explanation helped him relax a bit.
Next, I had him read his paper aloud to me so that I could assess which types of errors he could catch himself and which kinds he was not noticing. As we moved along, I began to introduce him to some strategies for the errors that he was not able to identify.
I noticed that articles, prepositions, and words with “s” endings were common issues in his writing. Sometimes he knew what sounded right, but other times he didn’t. The common denominator, I recognized, is that these are all parts of language that we as native speakers tend to learn by ear–not by studying rules–yet they are all parts of language that tend to be dropped or de-emphasized in speech which makes them harder to hear.
Professor Matsuda had mentioned a strategy in his lecture for addressing this type of issue that can be helpful for improving language in the way this student needed: Practice by reading out loud from a text and paying special attention to articles, prepositions and “s” endings. Doing this can help students start to develop a better sense of what sounds right and when to expect those words and sounds.
This made a lot of sense to me with regard to this student. There are rules for when to use articles and which one to use, but there are so many exceptions and ambiguities it’s virtually impossible to learn and apply them in a coherent way. And prepositions also tend to be very arbitrary. If you’ve ever learned another language, think about the prepositions in that language and try to match them up with English ones and you’ll see. Yet articles and prepositions can be vital to effective communication because they help us express relationships between ideas in accurate and often nuanced ways. Facility with prepositions is even more significant in the legal environment where the outcome of a case can turn on a phrase, a word, or even on a punctuation mark.
“S” endings, meanwhile, are somewhat different in that they can be relatively easy to explain and learn as rules with regard to third-person verbs and plural nouns. However, a tricky aspect of plural nouns is the notion of count nouns vs. non-count nouns. Most native English speakers don’t even know or think about the difference between a count noun (e.g., pen/pens) and a non-count noun (e.g., water or happiness). And if you were to ask a native speaker to identify them, most likely they would think about what sounds right and use that as a starting point for making their determination. Perhaps adding to the difficulty is that the existence or lack of an “s” at the end of a word is fairly low-stakes in terms of affecting the meaning, so the consequences for such errors tend to not be severe outside of irritating the ears of non-native speakers or making a non-native speaker appear to be careless in their proofreading. Regardless, they consistently pop up as errors for non-native speakers, and very likely a source of the problem is really about not hearing the dropped sounds and thereby not internalizing them in their version of what “sounds right.”
So I encouraged the student to read out loud for about 5 minutes a day in this manner. I said any texts are fine. Court opinions, magazine articles, novels, comic books, etc. But I also happened to have recorded the first-day lectures of about 10 different law professors at our school and created transcripts for each. So I shared the folder with him and told him to try working with the transcripts and then afterwards try listening to the recording and trying to hear the articles, prepositions, and “s” endings as a way to additionally train his ear.
At the same time, I also showed him some rule-based strategies for articles in a few specific situations. For example, all singular count nouns must have some sort of determiner before them. This was a useful rule for him since he frequently had singular count nouns with no article at all before them. This rule doesn’t tell you which article to use, but it at least offers an objective way for a student to be able to determine if something needs to be included or not. And objective strategies are what you need when you lack an intuitive sense of what sounds right, as non-native English speakers do.
We also discussed a bit about when to use “the” vs. “a”. He knew that “the” is generally used when something is more specific or has been mentioned before. I gave him a slightly broader rule that covers about 75% of situations: We use “the” when the writer/speaker thinks the reader/listener knows which thing we are referring to. Also, we use “a” to denote a general category (i.e., when it can be any pen or computer or apple.)
So, stepping back, a couple simple rules to help in those moments when he has the luxury of stopping and thinking. But an ear-training strategy to help develop a more intuitive sense over the long term. Hopefully, I’ll be able to continue working with him and get feedback on whether and to what extent these strategies prove helpful to him
Another common problem for the student was use of vocabulary or expressions that just don’t sound quite right. And to help him with that, I introduced him to the iWeb Corpus. But more on that in a future post!
In the meanwhile, special thanks to Professor Matsuda for his timely inspiration.