By Abbie Clark
Taking the decision to study a language alongside my LLB is one which I have had a complicated relationship with. It has allowed me to take on exciting experiences: from my first solo adventure to participate in a 2-week summer school in Aix-en-Provence this June, or my year abroad which I will embark on next September. And at times, I have been relieved that I can break up hours of reading cases and statute with grammar exercises or light-hearted activities, while still ticking off my to-do list. But other times I have felt that I had burdened myself with an impossible task that I could not achieve alongside pursuing a career in law – learning another language. But in truth, studying French has only complimented my legal studies, and enriched my life more widely. Furthermore, I feel it has even made me a better student advisor in my work at the law clinic. Here’s how…
When learning another language there are five core skills that you are examined on: written comprehension; oral comprehension; written expression; oral expression; and, grammar. All five are essential skills in law, and in clinic work. In our initial interview, we are required to speak to our client and listen to what they have to say, extracting the relative facts, while remaining compassionate and empathetic. This requires strong oral comprehension and expression skills. We then must read relevant legal documents (which I found at first to feel as foreign as my French texts) requiring strong written comprehension skills. Then, we must articulate the relevant law in a clear, concise, and comprehensive way, utilising grammar to ensure clarity, to advise the client of their position. Undoubtedly, the skills we learn in languages are essential to even the simplest tasks in any legal case. But how does improving these skills in another language enrich our ability as advisors?
Well firstly, we have competence in a different language. Whilst obvious that the biggest asset of language learning is knowing another language, its impacts cannot be understated. Whether expanding our pool of potential clients or wider network, or enabling clients to express themselves in their own language, there are certainly circumstances in which speaking another language promotes the interests of the clinic community. On an individual basis, we have a unique perspective on the effectiveness of the legal system by being able to compare and contrast with that of our chosen language. When it comes to French, I have even found that my language skills have enabled me to translate common legal phrases and decode old legal texts with my expanded knowledge of Latin-based language.
Secondly, our language skills help us understand areas of the law that we have not yet learned. We are accustomed to reading between the lines. We can use clues such as context, neighbouring words, suffixes or prefixes to find the unknown meaning of a word. Even words that are untranslatable. We are familiar with finding and grasping abstract concepts. So, when it comes to law, which is another language in and of itself, we can transfer these skills to understanding legal concepts that are unknown to us. To feel comfortable in grey areas, and be able to express them.
Thirdly, being familiar with the inability to fully express yourself results in the development of non-verbal communication skills. Many of my conversations with French speakers have relied heavily (if not solely) on body language and filler words. As such, I have learned to read people from their hand gestures, lips, facial expression and body language. This has allowed me to better read individuals; to identify when my client is struggling to express themselves, or when the other side has divulged more than intended. And resultantly, I can take this information and provide better client service.
Finally, learning other cultures and ways of life enables you to have a deeper understanding of humanity and deeper empathy. Language learning promotes cross-cultural communication and broadens your horizons by meeting people from all different cultures. Ultimately, you learn quickly that we are all more similar than some believe. Deepening your appreciation for humanity expands your empathy beyond measure, and in turn, makes it that much easier to do the work of a student advisor. Empathy is the catalyst for impactful pro bono work, which in my opinion, necessitates cross-cultural relationships.