Listening for international law students: Q&A with Prof. Gabrielle Goodwin

 Gabe Goodwin, IU Maurer School of Law 8.28.2012Professor Gabrielle Goodwin teaches graduate legal studies at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, Indiana. She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in linguistics, and she taught English as a foreign language before attending law school. In her work at Maurer, she teaches three courses in the graduate legal studies department: legal writing, introduction to U.S. law, and criminal procedure through writing for LLMs. Her research interests include art and cultural heritage law, and she has also contributed to the development of a trilingual university in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Professor Goodwin blogs at What she likes most about teaching is learning more about people, cultures, and legal systems.

Listen Like a Lawyer is grateful to Professor Goodwin for sharing her thoughts and advice for prospective and current international law students.

For a student considering enrolling in a U.S. law school, how can that student prepare for the style of a U.S. law school class?

A great way to prepare is to take an “Introduction to U.S. Law” type of class in the summer before starting at a U.S. law school. These classes introduce students to the basics of U.S. law and to the style of teaching in U.S. law schools. These days, a lot of law schools are offering such classes to their incoming students and some of them are open to any interested student.

However, not every student is able to attend such a class, and for those students, I would recommend listening to a variety of English language law-related material, such as TED talks, Oyez oral arguments, or legal podcasts, such as Life of the Law, Serial,  and Amicus. Although listening to such programs won’t help students understand the U.S. law school classroom, it will familiarize students with English speaking styles and legal vocabulary and concepts.

Gaining some background knowledge on American history and culture, the political system, ethics and theories of justice, and the structure of the courts would also benefit students as they prepare for law school classes. There are many free audio/video resources online, for example: Overview of the Federal Court System, Supreme Court Interviews, American Law: History and Origins, and The Preamble. Additional resources may be purchased, for example, The Great Courses on American History. 

What are the listening challenges that a student may face in law school, particularly if the professor is speaking a language other than the student’s first language?

 Aside from just understanding what the professor is saying generally, I think the biggest challenge is trying to discern what the point of a lecture is and understanding relevant versus irrelevant information. Also, because of cultural and speech pattern differences, it may be difficult for a non-native speaker of English to figure out when to interject a comment or ask a question. Even knowing the difference between when a professor asks a rhetorical question that doesn’t need a specific answer versus when a professor is waiting for an answer before moving on can be a challenge.

We might think of listening as being a passive activity; however, listening to a lecture, and learning from the lecture, means being an active listener. There are many interesting research studies showing that teaching people how to listen makes a difference in their comprehension. For non-native speakers of English, the challenge in listening is to prioritize what gets more or less attention, monitor understanding, and engage in ongoing self-evaluation and reflection. Students need to pay attention to what’s going on in their own heads while they’re listening – Are they simultaneously translating? Losing concentration? Finding the vocabulary hard to understand? Getting frustrated? – so that they can find ways to mitigate these difficulties.

Listening is not exactly the same as note-taking, but they are certainly related. What type of note-taking techniques do you recommend?

 Note-taking can be difficult for some of the reasons stated above, specifically knowing how to prioritize and organize information, but there are ways to mitigate this challenge. To begin with, students should come prepared to class. That means doing the reading or other homework that provides the background knowledge necessary to listen to and understand what the professor is saying. Predicting the types of information and possible vocabulary words can make students feel more prepared. If appropriate, make a pre-outline of the topics to be covered in class and add notes to the outline during the lecture.

Also, try to listen, understand, prioritize, and organize before writing anything down. Just writing everything the professor says doesn’t help when studying later because the context and relationships between ideas may be missing and because what’s quickly written down and what the professor actually said may in fact be different, leading to wrong conclusions. Similarly, noting words or concepts that are confusing, and then going back to them later to figure out, is better than becoming frustrated and losing the narrative of the lecture.

For some students, creating a “map” of lectures makes sense. Rather than trying to record everything in a linear outline, a student can draw a map of concepts, terms, and other information, which shows the relationships among them and where they fit in the big picture.

Soon after each lecture, class notes should be reviewed and amended. Putting notes in to a standardized outline format helps review and organize the material. Discussing and verifying notes with classmates is another good way to check understanding and review notes for accuracy.

Many international law students have legal expertise or training from their home countries. How can that expertise and training influence students’ experience in U.S. law schools?

 Most international law students come to U.S. law schools better prepared than American students. LL.M. students typically are lawyers in their home countries and have legal training and experience with taking a bar exam, not to mention practice experience. This is a huge advantage because international students are familiar with “the law” and the legal world. They are able to analogize from their prior experiences and training to more quickly understand new concepts.

However, this previous experience and training can be a disadvantage at times. Most international law students come from civil law countries, not common law countries. Noting the similarities and differences between the legal systems can distract students from understanding what is important about those similarities and differences. Also, always comparing what one is learning with what one already knows may get in the way of actually listening to what is being said.

In linguistics, we use the term “false friends” to denote words from different languages that look or sound similar but in fact have very different meanings. For example, parade in English and parada in Spanish, which means “bus stop,” not parade. In U.S. law schools, if international law students rely on “false friends,” concepts or terms that seem similar to those in their own legal systems, they may end up more confused than if they had no preconceived understanding of these concepts or terms.

Your class is a legal writing class. How does students’ listening matter to their legal writing?

We think of language proficiency as involving four skills—listening, speaking, reading, and writing—but these are not discrete skills. If a student is able to discuss and explain an issue, chances are good that the student will also be able to write about it. In my legal writing classes, my students are often asked first to brainstorm, discuss, explain, or clarify an issue as part of the pre-writing process. Talking to me, to each other, or even to themselves can help students decide what’s relevant, clarify their language, and organize their writing.  

What are the most helpful habits that law students can develop to listen effectively in class?

I think the most helpful habits are to think of listening as a multi-stage event:

  1. pre-listening tasks, such as planning and predicting
  2. listening tasks in the moment, such as selective attention, monitoring, evaluating, and organizing
  3. post-listening tasks, such as reviewing and reflecting

Each class lecture is not an isolated event, so trying to understand and fit each lecture into the big picture is also a useful strategy. Finally, it takes real concentration to listen to a lecture for the entire class period, and staying away from distractions, such as browsing the internet, texting, talking with classmates, or thinking about something outside of class, can make that easier.

Being an international student in a U.S. law school is a real challenge, but that challenge is not insurmountable. Developing good listening skills and habits will make the life of an international law student much more comfortable and less intimidating.

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