Language & the Law

May 27, 2021
Susan Dudley helps advance legal language skills for students with non-English heritage languages

Since 2018, visiting professor Susan Dudley has brought her skills in applied linguistics to the University of Richmond School of Law to support international students.

“I spent my last year of undergraduate school studying abroad because I was always fascinated by different cultures,” said Dudley. Her curiosity for world cultures and her passion for teaching inspired her to explore her current career path. Studying and traveling overseas, Dudley wanted to pursue a career that would allow her to teach and experience other cultures. After completing her bachelor’s degree with a double major in mathematics and economics, she earned a master’s degree in Teaching English to Students of Other Languages and is currently writing her dissertation for her doctorate in education.

Partnering with both international students and generation 1.5 students – those whose heritage language is not English and who immigrated to the United States during their K-12 education – Dudley offers such skill-specific workshops as “Legal Lexicon,” “How to Critically Read Legal Cases,” “How to Paraphrase and Avoid Plagiarism,” and “How to Study for Final Exams.” Dudley also provides tutorial sessions on pronunciation and confers with students on presentations, analytical reading, and writing assignments. “I tell students that though I am not a law professor, I can help them improve their legal English skills,” said Dudley. 

Working with law students was a draw and a new challenge for Dudley, who identified the position at Richmond Law as a “great opportunity to work with a different community,” she said. “Legal writing and analysis can be unlike other English constructions,” so she is able to use her linguistic knowledge “to assist in this different form of the English language.” She added, “In English, language is organized in a certain way. While the organization of legal English may differ from other fields, the framework shares some basic commonalities.”

Dudley works with students from diverse heritage languages, including native speakers of Korean, Chinese, Spanish, Swedish, Portuguese, and Arabic. While their linguistic challenges may differ, one of the most difficult parts of a student’s journey is to “understand what [they] don’t understand.” The next step is to recognize that differences exist between the way that students convey legal knowledge in their heritage language versus English.

In the beginning, “the reading analysis is tricky because [the students] sometimes interpret legal English inaccurately,” said Dudley. “It can be challenging for students to break from what they have ingrained in their minds due to their legal education in their heritage countries.” They work not just in the subject matter topics, but in how to read legal decisions, brief them, and write memorandums using the English language. Dudley supports all of these endeavors. 

The Learning Process

Dudley’s goal is not to edit her students’ work, but to teach them. “Editors fix the language problems by simply correcting mistakes,” she said. Instead, Dudley shows her students how to tackle their own legal linguistic challenges. She confers one-on-one with her students, looking at the student’s work together. She asks students to read their papers out loud while she explains the nuances of legal English. “Often, by reading their papers verbally, students find their own errors. If they do not, I ask them to stop and explain the error. If they read an incoherent sentence, I ask them to explain what they mean in their own words,” Dudley stated. “Soon they rewrite the sentence in a clearer fashion.”

When students meet with Dudley, she helps them to understand the differences in content and organization in English versus their heritage language. “When writing in English, the writer must explain in great detail, whereas in other languages, the reader is expected to infer,” said Dudley. Other issues include syntax conventions. “Heritage languages like Spanish and Arabic include run-on sentences. Word order differs for many Asian languages. Prepositions, word choice, and punctuation are other common dissimilarities. The good thing is that though these issues may not be easy to immediately fix long-term, they are pinpointed so as the students receive explanations and revise their work, they learn how to write their ideas in a coherent and organized manner.”

After meeting with her over a period of time, the students learn to correct their own mistakes, taking less time to review their writing. “The goal is for the student to no longer need my assistance,” said Dudley. “When this happens, I have done my job.” 

-By Salua Kamerow, L’22