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.

 

 

 

 

Motivation: Friday Field Trips, The Newsela Challenge and The Grammar Challenge

Given that motivation is cited as one of the keys (along with aptitude) to language learning, I’ve been thinking a lot about student motivation and buy-in in connection with developing and teaching legal English curriculum to LLM students. I’ve also been thinking about grammar and how to help students improve. So when we decided to add an additional ALDA class on Fridays this semester (and that I would be teaching it), I decided to try and tackle both of these topics in one semester-long effort.

Friday Field Trips

Each semester I’ve made it a point to devote three or so classes to field trips: One to federal court, one to state court, and one to a law firm. In the past, we’ve also done trips to the United Nations and the Court of International Trade. The students, needless to say, love these trips. But they also are a fantastic way to build background knowledge for the students. And of course field trips provoke a basis, desire and motivation for learning more.

So this semester I’ve set a schedule of one field trip every two weeks. The first will be to the Supreme Court in Queens County to visit a judge whose clerk is a St. John’s Law School alumnus. Additionally, we plan to visit both federal and state courts (to watch trials, motions, jury selection, etc.) as well as a police station, a couple different types of law firms (large and small), Queens Legal Services, and the United Nations. The biggest development, however, has been that as LLM students not in my ALDA classes have learned about them, they too have expressed interest in joining along for the Friday Field Trips. And from my perspective, the more the merrier and the better overall experience it will be. Continue reading

Improving LLM students’ written grammar through listening practice

It sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but is it possible that a number of grammar issues we see in LLM student writing could be addressed by listening practice?

Missing articles. Incorrect prepositions. Dropping an “s” at the end of a plural noun or third-person verb.

What do all of these have in common? They’re all soft, unstressed sounds that are often reduced and connected with sounds from other nearby words. Say the previous two sentences aloud and notice which sounds are stressed clearly and which ones are soft, reduced, or connected.

Why does this matter? Because being a native speaker of a language essentially boils down to knowing what sounds right. Articles and prepositions in particular are notoriously challenging to teach in accordance with clear rules. They are very arbitrary and capricious, and if you look at article and preposition usage in other languages, you quickly see that. Did we learn how to use all these small words by studying rules? No, of course not. We just had a lot of exposure to what sounds right and it’s jarring to our ears when it sounds wrong.

So how can listening practice help? If LLM students hear these sounds, then it’s more likely that the voice inside their head will absorb them and start to incorporate them. The problem, however, is that because these are often soft sounds, students do not absorb them and incorporate them. When they are listening to professors or classmates or a tv show, they’re focused on the main content. Their ears are not attuned to the soft sounds if they aren’t already on the students’ radars. Continue reading

Legal Writing: Connecting IRAC, syllogisms and analogies for LLM students

This past week for the frist time I did a full unit of syllogism and analogy activities with my legal writing students to prepare them for the concepts and language of IRAC-style writing. And it not only went very well–it also taught me something new.

Previously, I had taught the concept of IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis/Application, Conclusion) first and then had the students work on it through the Jogger/Banana Peel question. This question is the vehicle through which I have been teaching students IRAC-style discourse as well as the written language of that discourse. It involves a jogger who throws a banana peel on the beach after passing a sign that indicates a fine for “littering.” A police officer sees this and has to decide whether to issue a ticket, remembering that her supervisor did give a ticket to someone who threw a candy bar wrapper on the ground but did not give a ticket to someone who poured coffee on the ground.

In my approach, the students come to understand the IRAC concepts and signal words, but they still struggled in many ways with the underlying style of argument expected. For example, they would see the exercise as a simple application of a rule. The jogger littered; there’s a rule against littering; hence, the jogger should get a ticket. To not give a ticket would be to undermine rule of law and all that is good in our society, etc. Or, if they focus on the coffee and the candy bar wrapper, they make conclusory statements without really explaining or showing how those ideas connect. (Or rather, they don’t do it in a way that meets expectations for our writer-responsible writing culture.) Continue reading

New ALDA Legal English Professors

I’m very excited that in the past year the American Law: Discourse & Analysis (ALDA) Program (semester-long law courses taught with language support) has welcomed three new legal English professors to our teaching team, all having a unique combination of both large law firm practice experience and ESL teaching experience.

  • Prof. Daniel Edelson; former associate at Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP and Baker McKenzie (Business Litigation & Securities Fraud)
  • Prof. Anne Himes; former partner at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP (Corporate Transactions) 
  • Prof. Kayalyn Marafioti; former partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP (Corporate Restructuring)

Below are bios for each:

Professor Edelson is an Adjunct Professor of Law at St. John’s Law School and an attorney admitted to practice in New York and New Jersey. For several years he was associated with two international law firms in New York City where he specialized in business litigation and securities fraud. In 2012 Daniel moved to Seoul, South Korea to teach U.S. law. In addition to having his own law practice, he also tutors first year law students (1Ls), LLM students, and bar candidates. He is also the creator of numerous short, animated video explanations of legal topics on his website USLawEssentials.com. Prior to becoming an attorney Daniel lived in Japan where, among other things, he taught English as a Second Language.

Professor Himes holds a certificate in English language teaching from The New School in New York. She has a J.D. from Columbia Law School and an M.A. and B.A. in German from the University of North Carolina; as an undergraduate, she studied at Heidelberg University in Germany for one year. Professor Himes is a former partner at the Wall Street law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy; a member of the corporate department, she specialized in private corporate debt financings. She has also worked as in-house legal counsel to a New York single family office.

Professor Marafioti earned a J.D. from New York University School of Law, where she served as Note and Comment editor of the NYU Journal of International Law and Politics, and an A.B. cum laude from Harvard University, where she studied history and literature.  After graduating from NYU she practiced law in New York City for more than three decades.  For most of that time she was a partner in the corporate restructuring department of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, a global law firm, where she regularly worked on cross-border transactions with lawyers from all over the world.  Following her retirement from Skadden, she earned a certificate in teaching English language from The New School in New York.  She is a Fellow in the American College of Bankruptcy.

Legal writing: Teaching analogy and comparison language to LLM students

I recently finished reading an excellent and exciting article titled Beyond Contrastive Rhetoric: Helping International Lawyers Use Cohesive Devices in U.S. Legal Writing, by Elizabeth Baldwin, a professor of legal writing who has an MA in Applied Linguistics and works with LLM students at the University of Washington School of Law. I say exciting because each page that I read seemed to open my eyes and my mind and spark new ideas about teaching legal writing to LLM students.

In the article, Elizabeth–one of the founders of the ETLEP legal English Google Group together with Alissa Hartig, Lindsey Kurtz and me following the 2015 Global Legal Skills Conference in Chicago–distinguishes between coherence (top down: does it make sense?) and cohesion (bottom up: does it feel connected and logical?) A text can be coherent, i.e., you understand what the writer is saying, yet lack cohesion, i.e., the ideas feel disjointed and unnatural in some way you can’t quite put your finger on.

The article explains how cohesion can be lexical (e.g., use of repetition and synonyms) as well as grammatical (e.g., use of conjunctive words and phrases to connect information between sentences; use of a subordinated clause to front information so that it feels connected to information in the previous sentence).

However, the article really grabbed my attention at one point when it described a particular cohesive device that involves use of the pattern: [determiner + abstract noun]. (Determiners include a, an, the, this, these, my, your, which, other, and a bunch of other words you know but just didn’t realize were determiners.) An example might be a sentence along the lines of: Continue reading

Article: “St. John’s LL.M. Programs Stand Out With Language Support From Day One”

Here’s an article that was just posted on the St. John’s website today that provides some context and an overview of our language support capabilities in connection with our LLM programs.

“St. John’s LL.M. Programs Stand Out With Language Support from Day One”

Rui “Barry” Zhang smiles broadly as he explains one of the big differences between his legal education at China Youth University of Political Studies (CYU) in his native Beijing and the education he’s receiving as a graduate student in St. John’s Master of Laws (LL.M.) program. “In China, it’s like they give you a map and tell you to go find the treasure,” he says. “Here, they give you the treasure and you draw the map.”

It’s a treasure hunt that couldn’t be undertaken, Zhang adds, without the practical skills that he and his LL.M. classmates gain through the Law School’s exceptional language support—or Legal English—programs.

These offerings are specially designed to meet the needs of students in St. John’s Transnational Legal Practice (TLP) and U.S. Legal Studies (USLS) LL.M. programs, who earned (or are earning) their first law degree outside the United States. TLP students typically

CLICK HERE to read the rest of the article.