New tool by Harvard Law lets people explore language usage in caselaw

Thanks to my colleague Prof. Rebecca Lowry for passing on this article from the ABA Journal (“New tool by Harvard Law lets people explore language usage in caselaw” by Jason Tashea) about “Historical Trends,” a free online tool created by the Harvard Law School Library Innovation Lab which allows the public to explore the use of language over 360 years of caselaw in a corpus (linguistic database) consisting of 6.7 million federal and state cases and 12 billion words!

In what ways is it useful for LLM students (or any law students)? I’m not sure yet. If you figure one out, please let me know by posting in the comments or e-mailing me. But it’s fun to type in terms like “internet” and “res ipsa” and “synergy” and “irregardless” and “Lefkowitz” and then see the resulting graph covering 360 years of that word or phrase’s usage in American caselaw.

Summary of April 12 NY Academic Support Professionals Workshop at New York Law School

On Friday, April 12 I attended (and presented at) a really wonderful Academic Support Professionals (ASP) workshop at New York Law School organized by Kris Franklin of NYLS and Rebecca Flanigan of UMass Law School. It’s the second year in a row that I’ve attended, and I continue to appreciate and learn from this extremely knowledgeable and supportive community.

Prior to attending last year’s workshop, I had always viewed myself as a “legal English” specialist. But now I’ve come to view legal English as a subset of academic support, and I’ve come to view myself as an academic support professional for LLM and non-native English speaking students, where language support is the primary–but not only–need for aiding success in law school.

I presented on the topic of “1.5 Gen. Students and “Sound Right” vs. Read-Right Grammar Strategies.” I talked about (1) the concept of 1.5 generation students; (2) using read-aloud strategies to improve students’ use of articles, prepositions, and -s endings in student writing; and (3) ways for students to use the iWeb Corpus as a proxy for what “sounds right” to help students figure out on their own if they’re using the right word or using a given word correctly.

But what was most interesting to me was the range of topics and perspectives and experiences shared by all the participants from all the different law schools. Here’s a link to a summary on the Law School Academic Support Blog of all the presentations at the NY ASP Workshop:

NY ASP Workshop Review

Posted: 26 Apr 2019 05:40 AM PDT

Myra Orlen was kind enough to put together a recap of the NY ASP workshop. Her report is below. Kudos to Kris Franklin of the NYLS and Rebecca Flanagan of UMass Law School for organizing a wonderful workshop at NYLS…(Click here to read the full post on the Law School Academic Support Blog.)

Language and grammar strategies for non-native English speaking JD law students – Part 1

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.

Prof. Paul Kei Matsuda

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.

Image result for determiners articlesThis 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.)

Image result for bics calpI 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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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