Investigating students and lecturers engagement
 in a new Italian university law program taught in English.
An English for Academic Legal Purposes (EALP) case study. 
By Isabel Alice Walbaum Robinson


Studying Law at Roma Tre (SLR3) is an academic initiative launched by the University of Rome Three in 2006-2007, giving Italian and foreign students the opportunity to learn legal content using English as the vehicular language in a multicultural context. One of the main objectives of SLR3 is to stimulate students interest in developing skills and professional know-how in areas in which English increasingly plays a key role as the lingua franca of commerce and trade, mergers and acquisitions, contractual agreements and international arbitration.

The case study is being carried out to explore the SLR3 program from an English for Academic Legal Purposes (EALP) perspective. The research looks at students expectations and perceptions of experiences in their being inducted and socialized into studying law as well as learning the ways of thinking and practicing the discipline in English. The case focuses not only on knowledge of English, use of technical legal terminology, and the pragmatics of communication, but also on the implications of learning and teaching core disciplinary subjects such as law in English in higher education. An 'insider view' of what actually happens in multicultural, multilingual classrooms shows significant differences in the ways students from different countries engage with the curriculum. This qualitative inquiry also gives insights into how students construct their social networks reflecting their cultural, educational, and language backgrounds.


The case study examines engagement in terms of students' experiences, perceptions and expectations in learning the core discipline and of practicing law in English, not simply in relation to "English fluency", but also in terms of unpacking (gradually getting to understand) the specific complexities of European and international law.  The research looks at how students are facing the compound challenge of engaging with doing the legal subject and coping with the language demands either as non-native speakers of English (NNSE) or as near-native speakers of English (NrNSE).

Engaging with the curriculum in educational settings is a way to conceptualize flexible, fluid educational designs that encourage genuine human engagement with the material environment, with the conceptual and symbolic environment and with other human being (Barnett & Coate, 2005, Engaging the Curriculum in Higher Education, Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press). In design terms, engagement means developing curricula that include the domains of "knowing", "acting", and "being". For students it means the need to engage firsthand with different kinds of disciplinary knowledge, with opportunities for action, and with possibilities to become more fully themselves. These three challenges, which in simple terms may be defined as the challenges of learning the core discipline, of developing lawyer-like skills and practical know-how, and of gaining a sense of growth and fulfillment, are perceived in curriculum terms, by those whose learning experiences are represented, as distinct educational spaces. Spaces for the teaching and learning of law (epistemological space), for developing students capacities for purposive and critically judged actions (practical space), and for the unfolding of students' own being (ontological space) (Barnett & Coate, 2005, p.135).

Drawing from the above framework, this study explores curriculum engagement from three distinct language education domains:  

  • Language knowledge
  • Language skills
  • Language for self

Language knowledge
This domain includes learning both the English grammar system, the meanings of basic and specific vocabulary, pronunciation, and the ways words are used in socio-cultural settings. It responds to a fundamental English for Academic Legal Purposes (EALP) question:

What do learners need to know to practice law in a foreign language?

In a study conducted on the needs of students in EALP, Northcott found that law students, in thinking about their future careers, were "consistent in the assumption of the necessity of having a good command of legal English in order to get a job" (2008, Language Education for Law Professionals. In Gibbons, J. & Teresa Turrell, M., (eds.), Dimensions of Forensic Linguistics. AILA Applied Linguistics Series). Implicit in the author's statement is the idea that learning the discipline and developing skills in "doing the legal practice" involves being confident with the ability to express knowledge and know-how in a common language. The common or lingua franca of global professional activities and communication in most international settings today is English.

What this research expects to achieve is to find out how meaningful learning a discipline and acting in a professional environment internationally in English is to students, and to explore ways in which programs such as SLR3 can help make this engagement personally fulfilling in terms of academic growth and personal self-fulfillment.

Language skills
This domain includes skills and activities that are related to how student "engage" with the ways of thinking and practicing of a subject (Anderson & Hounsell, 2007, Knowledge practices: doing the subject in undergraduate courses, Curriculum Journal, 18:4, 463-478).
Among the various skills identified in this study are reading, speaking, writing and listening (2008, pp. 5-6). For example, reading and understanding law reports and legal textbooks, analyzing cases, writing reports, summaries and essays, participating in university seminars, using general and specialized legal vocabulary, giving presentations, attending and taking notes at academic and professional lectures.

Language and self
This third domain looks at students' personal attitudes towards studying core disciplinary subjects and ways of practicing core subjects in English.  The idea is to examine how students perceive themselves as speakers of English having to respond to academic demands in a foreign language. It also seems important to examine students personal commitment to being socialized into practicing the legal thing in English.

Operative framework

The operative framework adopted for this study takes into account students' engagement in relation to:

  • their experiences in learning legal literacies, participating in classroom discussions, and connecting with higher order concepts in English;
  • their perceptions about themselves as students of law acting and interacting with others in a foreign language; and,
  • their expectations, about past, present and future fulfilled or unfulfilled needs in relation to self and future professional aspirations;

Implicit in this study is the need to take into account lecturers' experiences - their induction strategies in teaching law in English, and also their ways of socializing students into developing skills representative of the practices of the legal profession.