Law school in and of itself is challenging, but can you imagine having the added pressure of a language barrier? It happens frequently enough that professors sound like they’re speaking a foreign language, but what about when they actually are?
In undergrad, I studied abroad in France and had to write and present a research thesis to a group of faculty. It was honestly one of the hardest things I had ever done in my academic career up until that point. Simple things like conducting interviews with people and basic grammar and spelling that seemed second-nature for everyone else was difficult and took me twice as long. So, long story short, I can relate to the plight of the ESL student—sort of—I can’t imagine how hard going to law school in another country would be.
Over the past few years, I’ve worked with a number of ESL students, and I’ve seen how not being a native speaker of English can make everything from taking class notes to writing exams much, much more difficult. I really admire the grit it takes to keep up on a daily basis. But, it takes more than just time and effort. You have to be strategic about the hours you’re spending to make sure you’re not focusing too much time on the wrong tasks.
I recently had the privilege of working with a student who had never gone to school in the U.S. before. She was a second-language English learner and came to law school with the drive to do well, but classes were absolutely overwhelming for her from day one—everything moved too fast. She couldn’t understand the professors, not to mention the rambling questions and unrelated remarks of other students. She was totally lost.
But you know what? She managed to pull an A in Civ. Pro.—the class we worked on together. How did this happen? Well, with a tremendous amount of hard work on her part, but also some adjustments and strategies that you too can apply. If you’re in law school and English is not your first language, try out these seven tips!
Ask if you can record lectures
Normally, I am not at all a fan of audio recording lectures in law school. It simply takes too much time to go back through and listen to all the recordings—time you really don’t have. But, that said, if you are struggling to keep up and lectures aren’t making any sense at all, then you’ve got to do something to fix that. Some ESL students I’ve worked with have found recording lectures really helpful, especially if they can listen later at half-speed and replay key portions multiple times.
One word of caution, though, I have actually seen one professor get very angry that a student was recording his lectures without asking first. This happened in one of my classes in law school. So, don’t assume recording is okay. Always get permission first.
Finally, be really cognizant of the time you’re spending outside of class re-listening to lectures. Experiment with playback speeds and skip around in the recordings so you’re not adding hours of work to your already-full schedule just trudging through lectures you already sat through. And, by all means, handwrite your notes! Handwriting can make it a lot easier to add little translations and explanations in the margins.
Go to office hours frequently to confirm your understanding
One effective way to make sure you’re assimilating everything from lecture is to go to office hours for confirmation. In office hours, unlike during class time, you can also politely ask your professor to speak slower to allow you to take notes.
Another thing I’ve found helpful is saying, “I think I understand, but could you rephrase what you just said and say it in a different way so I can make sure?” Or, better yet, you can say something like, “Do you mind if I repeat my understanding of this concept to make sure we are on the same page?” Keep in mind that this generally works better one-on-one, so if you can, schedule individual office hour appointments or go at a time that isn’t as busy so you don’t feel the pressure of a big group sitting around waiting for you to clarify.
In addition to asking questions about lecture, you can also confirm your understanding of various study materials in office hours. For example, you could tell your professor what take-away point you got out of a particular case or hypo he assigned and ask him if this is correct or not.
If you’re incorrect, be sure to get an explanation you understand. It can be tempting in office hours to go along with what your prof. says even if it’s not crystal clear in the moment, but fight that impulse. It’s okay to say, “I’m sorry, but I still don’t understand, can you tell me one more time?” Or, you can always ask for advice about where to look to get more answers on your own and then come back with further questions later if you still don’t get it or need clarification.
Keep in mind, some professors are much more patient and willing to help than others, so try to read the situation and if your prof. seems like they’re getting fed up, see if your school has other resources available to you (see more on that below).
Take full advantage of materials from your professor
If your prof. hands out charts, notes, case analyses, or any kind of hypos, recognize that these are gold. You won’t get materials that are more like your future exams than what your professor has written out herself. Not reviewing, memorizing, and asking questions about these materials would be a big mistake.
Practice every single past exam
This is one area where the student I mentioned above really excelled. She wasn’t afraid to write and then rewrite every single practice question available. While coming up with stock answers you can regurgitate verbatim on an exam isn’t a good idea, you should be teaching yourself how to write your best exam possible for your particular professor. Using your professor’s own hypos is a great way to do this.
One huge hurdle for ESL students is speed. Even if you understand everything well, it can be nearly impossible to write it all down in the time allowed. As with everything in life, though, the only way to get better at this is to practice! If all of your rule statements are memorized and you have also come up with a way to organize every type of question your prof. could potentially throw at you, then it will be much easier to focus on analysis and write quickly.
Put the rules into plain English and then teach them to yourself
Memorizing all the rules in a law school class is tough enough. Memorizing these rules when they don’t make any sense can be nearly impossible. Think of it this way, if I told you to memorize 15 lines of text that meant something or told a story about a recognizable concept, that would be much easier than if those 15 lines were complete gibberish or random patterns of Xs and Os. The same idea applies to the rules you’re learning in your classes.
Without some kind of context and understanding, memorizing is a whole lot harder. For this reason, I always suggest that all students (ESL and otherwise) formulate rule statements in plan English. Retain the legal elements and any important buzzwords, of course, but do away with any fancy or unnecessarily complicated language. Your goal on an exam is to be clear and concise, not verbose or bombastic. Take out big words or words that you couldn’t explain to someone who was new to the law. A general rule of thumb that we always use is that if you can’t explain a rule to a smart 5th grader or your grandmother, you don’t understand it well enough.
See what other resources your school has available to you
Most law schools have some kind of program that struggling students can seek out for support. If you’re not sure, ask if there is an academic support office at on campus or talk to a student mentor, librarian, guidance counselor or dean to see what your options are.
When I was in law school, I took lecture notes for the program at my school for law students with disabilities. I’m not saying being a non-native speaker of English is the same as having a physical or mental disability. It’s not at all. But, you might be able to find a similar type of program where you could get concise, neat notes from another student or extra help understanding lectures.
A lot of schools also offer peer tutoring with upperclassmen who have already taken the class and done well. I worked as a tutor when I was in law school and found that sometimes students are simply afraid of going to the professor and sounding stupid. But most of the time, they’re less shy about talking with a peer—especially someone who isn’t in their class. It can be really helpful to bounce your ideas off of a person who has taken the same class with the same professor before and already has an idea of what it takes to succeed. At the very least, programs like these could point you in the right direction so you can find other resources that might be helpful.
Get individualized help if you need it
As always, we’re here to help! Sometimes, listening to someone who is not your professor explain an idea or rule in a slower, simpler way is all you need. Getting written feedback on hypos is also an excellent way to practice the skills you will need on exam day. I’ve also found that video chats with ESL students (as opposed to regular phone calls or email) work really well so I (and they) can pick up on non-verbal cues that show a lack of understanding. That way, we can communicate in real-time and hammer the same point repeatedly if necessary, and from different angles until it makes sense.
As I said above, I have some idea of what trying to operate academically in a foreign language feels like—it’s exhausting and can be really frustrating! I can’t even imagine doing law school in a second or third language. What about you? Are you an ESL law student? Feel free to share what works for you in the comments below.
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