A simple yet sophisticated vocabulary trick for getting to know a legal English word

As my Legal Writing students reminded me the other day, it’s one thing to know a word when reading. It’s another to figure out how to use it correctly in writing.

In this case, the troublesome legal English word is “precedent.”  Below are a few sample sentences from my students’ writing with attempts to use the word:

  1. According to the precedent case, the police officer’s supervisor issued a ticket to a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground.”
  2. The precedent shows that coffee poured on the ground is not litter while a candy wrapper is litter.”
  3. The precedent is the police officer’s supervisor has issued a ticket to a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground.”
  4. One precedent is that a person who threw a candy wrapper on the ground was issued a littering ticket.”

Grammatically, these sentences are fine. Yet, as a native English speaker and teacher of legal writing, the use of “precedent” sounds decidedly off. But why? What you might find yourself saying is, “It just doesn’t sound right.” Yet that feels like an insufficient explanation given that the fundamental ability a non-native English speaker lacks is the ability to know what sounds right.

So what is a legal writing professor of LLM students to do? Continue reading

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

Book review – Part 1: Alissa Hartig’s “Connecting Language and Disciplinary Knowledge in English for Specific Purposes: Case Studies in Law”

I am extremely excited to have the opportunity to review a new book by Alissa Hartig, Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics at Portland State University, entitled Connecting Language and Disciplinary Knowledge in English for Specific Purposes: Case Studies in Law, which I just yesterday received from the publisher, Multilingual MattersPart of the reason is that this is, to the best of my knowledge, the first book ever published that presents a study of the teaching of “legal English” from a linguistics perspective. 

In other words, it is an entire book that thinks deeply and conceptually–far more deeply and conceptually than I would be able to–about how to teach law with language support to non-native English speaking law students (e.g., international LLM students). If I can read and absorb even 10% of what’s in this book, I feel like I will ascend to a higher legal English plain. Which suggests that if I absorb the entire book I will attain some sort of legal English nirvana. (Side note: Wondering whether this is the first instance of “legal English” collocating with “nirvana.”)
Continue reading

TESOL 2017 Seattle: Legal Language – Strategies for Effective Communication in Law School

Pam Dzunu, Stephen Horowitz, Shelley Saltzman, and Kirsten Schaetzel

I had the honor of joining an esteemed panel of legal English professionals last Thursday at the TESOL 2017 Convention in Seattle for a presentation titled “Legal Language: Strategies for Effective Communication in Law School.” The panel was organized by legal English expert Pamela Dzunu of Washington University of St. Louis School of Law and also included experienced legal English practitioners Kirsten Schaetzel of Emory Law School and Shelley Saltzman of Columbia University.

Pam Dzunu presenting on Using Storytelling to teach legal English.

The topics presented were:

An amusing slide from Michelle Ueland’s presentation on Empowering Teachers to Address the Challenges of ESP Curriculum Design

In addition to our panel presentation, I also had the opportunity to attend several other excellent, informative and thought provoking presentations, including:

  • Collectivizing for Reading Developing in the L2 Legal Classroom – English for Specific Purposes, by Lindsey Kurtz of Penn State University. (Lindsey is one of a handful of people conducting linguistic research on law school language and learning.)
  • Beyond Exit Tickets: Teaching Pre-service Candidates Linguistic Assessment Techniques, by Beth Clark-Gareca, University at New Paltz-SUNY
  • A slide from Kirsten Schaetzel’s panel presentation on Engaging, Enriching and Empowering ESP Teachers and Students

    Engaging, Enriching, and Empowering ESP Teachers and Students, Cynthia Flamm and Maria Tameho-Palermino, Boston University; Marta Baffy and Michelle Ueland, Georgetown University Law Center; Kirsten Schaetzel, Emory Law School; and Shelley Saltzman, Columbia University (all legal ESL professionals with extensive experience)

  • Empowering Teachers to Address the Challenges of ESP Curriculum Design, Heather Gregg Zitlau, Business English and Jennifer Chang-Lo, Business English, Georgetown University; Julie Lake (legal English) and Michelle Ueland, Legal English, Georgetown University Law Center; Robert Engel, Defense Language Institute; and Liz England, Liz England & Associates LLC (plus general handout, and Ueland  handout)

Unfortunately, I also had to miss two presentations I was very excited about seeing:

Other highlights:

  • I joined the English for Specific Purposes (ESP) Special Interest Group meeting and had the opportunity to connect with and get to know not only legal English professionals, but also teachers, consultants, and administrators (e.g., outgoing president Robert Connor of Tulane and ESP group newsletter editor Kevin Knight of Kanda University in Japan among others) who develop and teach curricula related to engineering, business, tourism, and medicine among other relevant ESP fields that are increasingly in demand.
  • Having a nice chat with Christine Feak of the University of Michigan’s English Language Institute. Feak, together with John Swales, has published a number of influential books and research articles on teaching academic writing at the college and graduate level to non-native English speakers. She has also developed and taught curricula for legal English in the past, and I discovered that, like me, she also has an affinity for the Lefkowitz case as a vehicle for teaching students to read and brief cases.
  • Meeting Ted Chen, a lawyer who now teaches legal English at Edmunds Community College in Lynwood, WA near Seattle. He’s the first person I’ve met who teaches legal English at the community college level. (If you know of others, I’d love to hear about them.) He’s incorporated some interesting ideas into his course including inviting a police officer to visit his class and answer questions–an idea I would love to incorporate when we teach criminal law in the ALDA Program next semester!

Final comment: Seattle is a beautiful city with a wonderful vibe, even in the rain. Especially in the rain, come to think of it.

Early morning by Pike Market in downtown Seattle.

A New Language Map of Queens

One of the great things about being Director of Legal English Programs (and a linguist) at St. John’s Law School is that Queens is not only the most culturally diverse place in America but also the most linguistically diverse.

And now there’s a map to demonstrate this, created by the Endangered Language Alliance and featured in a recently published book titled  Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. The map was also part of an exhibit at the Queens Museum.

 

New article by Alissa Hartig: “Intersections Between Law and Language: Disciplinary Concepts in Second Language Legal Literacy”

alissahartigIntersections Between Law and Language: Disciplinary Concepts in Second Language Legal Literacy” is a recent article published by Alissa Hartig in Studies in Logic, Grammar & Rhetoric (The Journal of University of Bialystok) that discusses a distinction between discourse-structuring concepts and discourse-relevant concepts in ESP. Don’t be intimidated by the linguistics terminology, though. The article describes her work with two LLM students from China and two from Saudi Arabia and provides concrete examples of the complex issues and dynamics at play when teaching them in a law school context.

Hartig is an Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics at Portland State University. She is the author of a forthcoming book titled Connecting language and content in English for Specific Purposes: Case studies in law. (Publisher: Multilingual Matters) Her previous research and writing on the intersection of law and linguistics includes a 2016 article titled “Conceptual blending in legal writing: Linking definitions to facts” and a 2014 article titled “Plain English and legal writing: Comparing expert and novice writers,” both published in the journal English for Specific Purposes.