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