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

Contracts and Grammar, Prescriptivists and Descriptivists

Contracts_680x376[Co-written with Kathryn Piper]

We were excited–for two different reasons–to see a recent blog post on the Legal Writing Profs Blog titled “An Empirical Look at the Prescriptivist vs. Descriptivist Dilemma in Drafting.” The post actually leads to a more involved blog post by Ross Guberman titled “A Day in the Life of an American Contract” which lays out the descriptivist vs. prescriptivist dilemma and describes the gap between the kind of language that authoritative sources say should be used in contract drafting and the kind of language actually used in contract drafting. Guberman backs this up with a review of 25 contracts arbitrarily pulled from the SEC website all on the same recent April day.

The reason this post caught our attention is 1) we are currently developing a contract drafting curriculum for a new course (Drafting: Litigation Documents & Contracts) intended for non-native English speaking LLM students, and 2) descriptivist vs. prescritivist is a big theme in the world of applied linguistics and grammar, a theme that ran throughout my MA TESOL studies.

In case you’re not up on things in the linguistics/grammar world, professionals in the field have increasingly Continue reading