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.

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

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.