Baby Steps: Building a Legal Vocabulary in French and Spanish by Visiting the Children’s Portals of Legislative Websites from Selected Foreign Jurisdictions

By Katherine Orth

In my first post in the Acquiring Foreign Languages series, I wrote about my plan to achieve bibliographic proficiency in French and Spanish by taking two graduate-level courses at my university: “French for Reading” and “Spanish for Reading.”  These courses are not specifically designed for lawyers and legal researchers, yet I intend to use French and Spanish to conduct legal research for FCIL resources.  Therefore, I have to design a study plan that supplements the syllabus, but is specifically tailored for the needs of an FCIL researcher.

Before the First Class: Get Ready, Get Set . . .

Following the habit I developed in law school, I consult the French and Spanish course syllabi well in advance of the first class meetings.  As I expected, both classes have required readings and written work due on day one.  There are verb forms to memorize and grammar rules to practice.  At this early juncture, I complete the work without much difficulty.  I studied both French and Spanish in high school, and I even took one semester of conversational French in college.  Assignment completed, I take a closer look at the syllabi and notice that there are no assignments pertaining to the memorization of vocabulary.  The omission makes sense, because the courses are designed for graduate students from a variety of arts, humanities and social sciences departments – each with their own specialized vocabularies.  I’m eager to get down to brass tacks building a vocabulary specific to FCIL, and I’m curious to hear how my professors suggest that I do it.

The First Class: You Know More than You Think

My French and Spanish professors are eager to reassure their students that even complete beginners to the language know more than they think.  Certainly, there will be a lot of rote memorization.  My French professor jokes, “the two most important vocabulary words in any foreign language class are: “flash” and “cards”!  Fortunately, cognates smooth the path to learning new languages.  Cognates are words that are spelled similarly to English-language words, that may or may not have similar meanings in the foreign language.  With cognates, we build foreign language vocabularies on familiar foundations.  Another vocabulary-building technique is to group like with like.  My Spanish professor encourages us to create “vocabulary fields.”  For example, if an unfamiliar word in a text means “sister,” we should take the time to look up the words for other family members as well.  In this way, memorization of associated vocabulary takes place all at once, and recall of one word can spark the recall of many related words.

After the First Class: Take Baby Steps

My objective is to build a legal vocabulary by engaging as much as possible with French and Spanish legal terms and concepts.  I come up with the idea to browse the children’s portals of foreign legislative websites.  But how easy will it be to find the foreign counterparts of the GPO’s “Ben [Franklin]’s Guide to the U.S. Government”?  Luckily, it’s quite easy thanks to the folks at the Law Library of Congress whose excellent blog contains a report detailing the Features of Parliamentary Websites across the globe.

I set myself a simple task: browse selected sites to compile a preliminary working vocabulary of approximately 50 words.  I keep my eyes peeled for the “magic words” : “glossaire” and “glosario” (glossary)!  I write down the words and phrases in a notebook so that I can check them against dictionary definitions later – I don’t want to be tricked by false cognates!  The portals I browse are:

Argentina: El Congreso de los Chicosbanner for el salvador

El Salvador: Asamblea Legislativa de el Salvador para Niñas y Niños

Canada: Parlement du Canada: Activités Pédagogiques

Argentina’s portal features centrally-placed text boxes containing brief explanations in simple Spanish about the lawmaking process.  El Salvador’s “glosario legislative” (found under the “La Asamblea” tab) is browsable by letter of the alphabet, and includes drawings to provide context for the definitions.  The children’s resources available on the French-language portal of the Canadian Parliament are so extensive that I temporarily set aside my plans to explore the children’s portals for France, Belgium, and Switzerland.  The Canadian site contains numerous classroom activities tailored to entertain preschoolers through high schoolers, and when I encounter words and phrases I don’t understand, I know for sure that the English-language option on the menu bar fully mirrors the French-language option.

Although I visited the children’s portals to gather vocabulary, I found many enticing extras that will keep me coming back to the sites over the following weeks and months.  But I’ll have to stay away from the games and word puzzles for now.  My vocabulary-gathering activity isn’t complete until I’ve fact-checked it.  Now it’s time to consult the dictionary, as well as the foreign jurisdiction pages from GlobaLex to see if my early-stage reading comprehension skills need correcting.

5 responses to “Baby Steps: Building a Legal Vocabulary in French and Spanish by Visiting the Children’s Portals of Legislative Websites from Selected Foreign Jurisdictions

  1. Also consider a course in Business French or Business Spanish. I studied Banking and Finance and International Relations before I went to law school and the business language courses were very useful when I was an international law librarian.


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