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

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

Legal Writing: Connecting IRAC, syllogisms and analogies for LLM students

This past week for the frist time I did a full unit of syllogism and analogy activities with my legal writing students to prepare them for the concepts and language of IRAC-style writing. And it not only went very well–it also taught me something new.

Previously, I had taught the concept of IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis/Application, Conclusion) first and then had the students work on it through the Jogger/Banana Peel question. This question is the vehicle through which I have been teaching students IRAC-style discourse as well as the written language of that discourse. It involves a jogger who throws a banana peel on the beach after passing a sign that indicates a fine for “littering.” A police officer sees this and has to decide whether to issue a ticket, remembering that her supervisor did give a ticket to someone who threw a candy bar wrapper on the ground but did not give a ticket to someone who poured coffee on the ground.

In my approach, the students come to understand the IRAC concepts and signal words, but they still struggled in many ways with the underlying style of argument expected. For example, they would see the exercise as a simple application of a rule. The jogger littered; there’s a rule against littering; hence, the jogger should get a ticket. To not give a ticket would be to undermine rule of law and all that is good in our society, etc. Or, if they focus on the coffee and the candy bar wrapper, they make conclusory statements without really explaining or showing how those ideas connect. (Or rather, they don’t do it in a way that meets expectations for our writer-responsible writing culture.) 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.”)
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New ALDA Legal English Professors

I’m very excited that in the past year the American Law: Discourse & Analysis (ALDA) Program (semester-long law courses taught with language support) has welcomed three new legal English professors to our teaching team, all having a unique combination of both large law firm practice experience and ESL teaching experience.

  • Prof. Daniel Edelson; former associate at Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP and Baker McKenzie (Business Litigation & Securities Fraud)
  • Prof. Anne Himes; former partner at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP (Corporate Transactions) 
  • Prof. Kayalyn Marafioti; former partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP (Corporate Restructuring)

Below are bios for each:

Professor Edelson is an Adjunct Professor of Law at St. John’s Law School and an attorney admitted to practice in New York and New Jersey. For several years he was associated with two international law firms in New York City where he specialized in business litigation and securities fraud. In 2012 Daniel moved to Seoul, South Korea to teach U.S. law. In addition to having his own law practice, he also tutors first year law students (1Ls), LLM students, and bar candidates. He is also the creator of numerous short, animated video explanations of legal topics on his website USLawEssentials.com. Prior to becoming an attorney Daniel lived in Japan where, among other things, he taught English as a Second Language.

Professor Himes holds a certificate in English language teaching from The New School in New York. She has a J.D. from Columbia Law School and an M.A. and B.A. in German from the University of North Carolina; as an undergraduate, she studied at Heidelberg University in Germany for one year. Professor Himes is a former partner at the Wall Street law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy; a member of the corporate department, she specialized in private corporate debt financings. She has also worked as in-house legal counsel to a New York single family office.

Professor Marafioti earned a J.D. from New York University School of Law, where she served as Note and Comment editor of the NYU Journal of International Law and Politics, and an A.B. cum laude from Harvard University, where she studied history and literature.  After graduating from NYU she practiced law in New York City for more than three decades.  For most of that time she was a partner in the corporate restructuring department of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, a global law firm, where she regularly worked on cross-border transactions with lawyers from all over the world.  Following her retirement from Skadden, she earned a certificate in teaching English language from The New School in New York.  She is a Fellow in the American College of Bankruptcy.

Presenting at Southeastern Association of Law Schools Conference on Tues 8/1

On Tuesday, August 1 at 10:15 a.m. I will have the honor of being part of a panel discussion at the Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) Conference. The panel, organized by Kirsten Schaetzel of Emory Law school, is titled “International Learners and Legal Writers: Pitfalls and Promising Practices” and also includes Marta Baffy of the Georgetown University Law Center and Catherine Schenker of American University, Washington College of Law

I will be speaking specifically about ideas and approaches for teaching IRAC (Issue Rule Application Conclusion) discourse to non-native English speaking LLM students in ways that incorporate ESL concepts and pedagogy. 

This is my first time attending SEALS and needless to say I am very excited amd looking forward to it as well as the chance to interact with and learn from colleagues at other law schools. 

Here is a full description of the panel:

At many law schools today, the number of international students is increasing. These students come from different legal and educational systems and may have trouble understanding and learning the conventions of American legal discourse. This panel, composed of legal writing and English as a Second Language specialists from various law schools, examines areas in legal writing that may be troublesome for non-native English students. Beginning with an overview of cultural differences in writing conventions and expectations, panelists present how they teach different aspects of American legal writing. Panelists cover teaching summaries of legal rules and their various sources of law; IRAC discourse organization and answering essay exam questions; and understanding fact-pattern exercises and responding to them. 

If you happen to be attending, then hopefully we will see each other. Stay tuned for a post conference report. 

Legal writing: Teaching analogy and comparison language to LLM students

I recently finished reading an excellent and exciting article titled Beyond Contrastive Rhetoric: Helping International Lawyers Use Cohesive Devices in U.S. Legal Writing, by Elizabeth Baldwin, a professor of legal writing who has an MA in Applied Linguistics and works with LLM students at the University of Washington School of Law. I say exciting because each page that I read seemed to open my eyes and my mind and spark new ideas about teaching legal writing to LLM students.

In the article, Elizabeth–one of the founders of the ETLEP legal English Google Group together with Alissa Hartig, Lindsey Kurtz and me following the 2015 Global Legal Skills Conference in Chicago–distinguishes between coherence (top down: does it make sense?) and cohesion (bottom up: does it feel connected and logical?) A text can be coherent, i.e., you understand what the writer is saying, yet lack cohesion, i.e., the ideas feel disjointed and unnatural in some way you can’t quite put your finger on.

The article explains how cohesion can be lexical (e.g., use of repetition and synonyms) as well as grammatical (e.g., use of conjunctive words and phrases to connect information between sentences; use of a subordinated clause to front information so that it feels connected to information in the previous sentence).

However, the article really grabbed my attention at one point when it described a particular cohesive device that involves use of the pattern: [determiner + abstract noun]. (Determiners include a, an, the, this, these, my, your, which, other, and a bunch of other words you know but just didn’t realize were determiners.) An example might be a sentence along the lines of: Continue reading