December 2000 — Volume 4, Number 4
American Legal English: Using Language in Legal Contexts
Debra S. Lee, Charles Hall, and Marsha Hurley (1999)
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xvii + 276
ISBN 0-472-08586-7 (paper)
US $21.95; UK £17.00
Teacher’s edition: ISBN 0-472-008587-5 (paper)
US $13.95; UK £10.00
Cassettes: ISBN 0-472-00283-X
US $20.00; UK £15.00
American Legal English (ALE) is a book that strikes a happy compromise between an English for Special Purposes textbook and an introduction to the American legal system. It is the collaborative effort of three experienced language teachers with a background in law, two of whom teach legal English in countries other than the United States. ALE is intended for the benefit of law students and legal practitioners with a good basic knowledge of general English and can be used by ESP instructors who have undergone legal and/or ESL training. [-1-]
The book is divided into nine chapters of roughly equal proportions. It is organized in such a way as to promote a just understanding of U.S. law, starting with some basic information on the origins and nature of the U.S. legal system and proceeding to build up a systematic picture of various areas of the law. Each chapter follows a clear progression from simple to complex notions. There are introductions for both students and teachers, which thoroughly explain the general organisation of the book. A copious subject index and a table of cases conclude the book.
The opening chapter provides general information on the founding of the U.S. legal system, the nature and scope of judge-made law, the concepts of binding and persuasive authority, the distinction between holding and dicta, and the broad divisions of U.S. law. Chapter 2 examines the ways in which U.S. lawyers apply some of the concepts discussed in chapter 1 in preparing their cases. In chapter 3 the focus of attention turns to issues associated with U.S. criminal law. Chapter 4 deals with civil procedure as diversely practised under each state court system. Chapter 5 gives a general description of tort law. Chapter 6 focuses attention on product liability. Chapter 7 surveys the laws governing corporations in the United States. In chapter 8 the reader is given a broad overview of contract law. The concluding chapter 9 provides students with an opportunity to conduct a full-fledged mock trial.
The originality of the approach taken by the authors of ALE resides in the emphasis placed on cross-cultural difference in both language and law. Thus, in chapter 1 learners are apprised that Americans may perceive silence in a conversation differently than do people from other language/cultural backgrounds. To enable learners to go beyond these merely factual insights, such informative passages are usually followed up with a variety of exercises designed to raise students’ awareness of cross-cultural differences. In the case under discussion, a listening comprehension exercise is used to prepare the way for a clearer understanding of the rules governing back-channel behaviour (or lack thereof). Equally enlightening is the paragraph on low-context and high-context cultures in chapter 2. In a similar section in chapter 3 it is argued that differences in cultural values make it permissible to reduce the charge that is brought against the defendant or to pronounce more lenient sentences after conviction. These are just some examples of the useful awareness-raising exercises that make this book unique among textbooks on American legal English; the list could be lengthened. [-2-]
Another positive feature of the book is the great variety of exercises, which give roughly equal weight to all 4 language skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing). The vast majority of exercises are based on the “real world” of U.S. courtrooms or make use of authentic court cases. Due attention is paid to developing vocabulary acquisition skills essential for success in a legal setting, a wide range of role-plays are offered which will help students gain fluency in various modes of oral argument, and the writing exercises give students an opportunity to practise a variety of genres, ranging from briefing through informal letter writing to the recasting of a disclaimer in plain English.
The weakest parts of the book are the “language focus” sections. Although generally sound, they fail to take account of the linguistic research currently available to the language teacher, thus presenting a somewhat oversimplified picture of legal English, and indeed, of the English language generally. In the section on reported speech in chapter 4, for example, no mention is made of such reporting verbs as acknowledge, admit, announce, claim, point out, object, or proclaim, to give but a few examples; nor will the legal student find any guidance on the various other reporting structures, such as noun and adjective structures, that English writers can avail themselves of. Worse, some of the rules formulated by the authors are far from having general applicability. Thus, contrary to the authors’ claims (cf. p. 121), the past tense and the past perfect tense are often interchangeable in reported clauses introduced by a past tense verb. It is also doubtful whether the information on connectors provided in the book will be in any way helpful to the non-native learner. It would have been desirable to draw clear semantic lines between basic connectors such as because, since, as, and for, and to offer students some grounding in the use of connectors peculiar to legal English such as pursuant to.
The few reservations I have voiced here do not vitiate the contribution that ALE makes to the teaching of legal English. It is strong on U.S. law and language pedagogy, somewhat weaker on the specifics of legal language.
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