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On the merits of bad TV in teaching Legal English

Anna Konieczna-Purchała takes a look at how she uses a TV show in her Legal English classes. If this is something that interests you, take a look at Express Series English for Legal Professionals.

I work with lawyers and translators of legal texts, helping them acquire the vocabulary and skills they need to be successful at their jobs. In principle, these students are willing and motivated. In practice, they usually come to class after a long hard day at work. They are tired, and – much as they try to shake off the fatigue – their thoughts go towards home, dinner, and rest.

Before any successful learning can occur, they need to wake up, re-focus, and become truly present in the classroom.

And that’s where bad TV comes in.

Why would you ever use TV drama in Legal English classes, when there is a massive amount of real-life information and resources to assist learning, especially at higher levels? The statutes, rulings and debates are all out there, just begging to be turned into authentic study materials. There is just one problem: after a whole day of dealing with authentic legal texts, more of the same is the last thing my students want to see. Sure enough, they will read and discuss whatever I offer to them, because they are dutiful, and hard-working, and really keen on learning.

But will my thoroughly authentic materials make their eyes light up and their tiredness disappear?

I doubt it.

It all changes dramatically if I let them watch TV, even just for a while. I set the scene by telling them that they are about to watch civil litigation unfold. I switch on an episode of The Defenders, playing it from the moment a trial begins. Opening speeches are presented, so the students learn the premise of the trial first-hand from the characters on the show. Now, real-life opening speeches can be boring. The Defenders on the other hand are entertainment TV. They cannot afford to be boring. The trial unfolds with drama running high, reaching a peak when Jim Belushi’s character asks his partner to give himself a severe allergic reaction, and then swoops in to save him with an epinephrine shot to his suit-clad butt, all in the courtroom. It is hilarious, it is most unlikely, and it is utterly engaging.

The clip is only about 6 minutes long. In these 6 minutes, I achieve three goals.

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