Credit: Louis Henwood via historyofenglishpodcast.com
A bit of a digression, but since July 2013, a lawyer named Kevin Stroud based in Raleigh, North Carolina has been producing the History of English Podcast. In addition to answering a large volume of “why the heck” questions about English language, Stroud is also an engaging storyteller, explainer, and organizer of the disparate strands of the history of the English language aided by an unpretentious, soothing voice with a slight Southern lilt. Interestingly, Stroud is neither a linguist nor a historian. (I had no idea until I was already about halfway through.) The podcast is currently up to Episode 72: The Dark Ages of English.
I learned of the podcast in Spring 2015 and began listening to it, mostly on my daily commute to work, and have finally just about caught up at midway through Episode 71: On the Hunt.
Despite my great appreciation and enjoyment of the podcast, I have to admit that it has not contributed to my “legal English” teaching in any direct way that I have been able to transfer into the classroom. But it does usually leave me inspired and excited about the field in which I teach–particularly when he references law-related words.
Try it out if you have a chance and share your reactions here if you feel so inclined.
“Didja ever notice…?”
Just like with self-improvement, you can’t change something about yourself unless you first notice and are aware of it. The same is true for learning language skills as well as skills for law school.
Law school is notoriously sink-or-swim. And the teaching approach tends to be very top-down with students expected to intuitively know how to absorb, analyze, and synthesize large amounts of information and then figure out how to present it in ways that match professors’ expectations.
This carries over into teaching international students who need language support.
They are frequently asked to do things like read cases, write case briefs and IRAC memos, and understand and recognize plagiarism. We ask them to take notes, summarize, paraphrase. But we don’t always recognize that these are in many ways actually vaguely defined tasks. Continue reading
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The Challenge: Helping international students to better read and comprehend law school texts.
Solution #1: Recognize that successful reading is highly dependent on background information.
Take the sentence: “A-Rod hit into a 6-4-3 double-play to end the game.” If a baseball fan reads that, they know exactly what it means as well as what it implies. They can even picture Rodriguez’s head hung low as fans boo the highly paid star of the most famous baseball team who has been tainted by steroids allegations. If you’re an American non-baseball fan, perhaps you can figure out it’s about the final play by a well-known baseball player. And if you come from another country and have no exposure to baseball, then all you likely know is that some sort of game ended.
For all three people, grammar is not the issue. And vocabulary is only part of the issue, as a dictionary would only provide limited assistance in comprehending this sentence. The greatest impediment to understanding is “domain knowledge,” also known as background information.
For international students studying law in the U.S., Continue reading
“It was the best of terms, it was the worst of terms.”
(With sincerest apologies to Charles Dickens)
“Legal English” is a rather loaded term. Much like “family values” or “activist judges,” its meaning is vague, subjective, and dependent on the context as well as brain of the person ingesting the phrase.
For some, it means teaching a very stripped-down version of legal writing and legal concepts. For others, it means an ESL course that focuses on law-related vocabulary and situations. It can also refer equally to a brush-up course for practicing lawyers taught at a private language school as well as a summer course designed to prepare incoming LL.M. students for the law school experience.
In each instance, Continue reading
Welcome to the St. John’s Legal English Blog!
We love discussing, debating, brainstorming, experimenting and pushing the envelope with regard to what “legal English” could and should be, and what it could and should accomplish. But mostly, we love learning from each other and from others in our community in our efforts to provide high quality education in this still developing field.
In addition, as we have collaborated to grow our program at St. John’s, we became aware that we offer three unique yet integrated perspectives on teaching at the intersection of law and language support.
- Stephen Horowitz, Director of Legal English Programs. Stephen is a graduate of Duke Law School and former associate at the Wall St. law firm of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan with a recent M.A. in TESOL from CUNY-Hunter College and several years of experience teaching English and studying law in Japan. He designed the curriculum and teaches in the American Law: Discourse & Analysis (ALDA) program and also co-designed the curriculum for the English for American Law School (EALS) courses and the Bar Exam Language & Strategies (BELS) course which he co-teaches with Kathryn Piper.
- Kathryn Piper, a graduate of UC Hastings College of the Law, where she served as the Executive Editor of the Hastings Women’s Law Journal, and Brief Editor for the Traynor California Law Moot Court Team following several years of teaching English in Japan. She teaches the Legal Writing I & II courses and co-teaches Transnational Legal Practice (TLP) I & II for our LL.M. students.
- Joshua Alter, a graduate of St. John’s University School of Law, who has taught legal writing and related courses since 2013. He is currently teaching a legal English course in China in his capacity as a visiting professor at schools including Beijing Jiaotong University, East China University of Political Science and Law, and Southwest University of Political Science and Law.
Of all the fields of study that interact with language support and cross-cultural interaction, it is fair to say that law–a field where livelihoods can be ruined based on the placement of a comma or the meaning of “is“–requires the most control and comprehension of the language.
Our goal within this blog is to share our experiences, successes, experiments, challenges, ideas, and anecdotes with the “legal English” community. We want to discuss and learn in our attempts to fuse the challenges and pedagogy associated with the learning of law with the challenges and pedagogy associated with the learning of a second language.
We invite you to join us in our conversation and welcome your thoughts and insights.