It’s the Little Things That Matter Most: Enhancing Legal Vocabulary in French and Spanish with Function Words Found in United Nations Security Council Resolutions

By Katherine Orth

In my previous post in the Acquiring Foreign Languages series, I wrote about building a foundational legal vocabulary in French and Spanish.  I browsed the children’s portals of foreign legislative websites to gather a preliminary content vocabulary.  Now it’s time for me to review prepositions, conjunctions, and adverbs.  I want to do it in a way that keeps the focus firmly on FCIL resources.  My solution is to search for and identify functional vocabulary terms in UN Security Council resolutions.

Buckle Up!

From Zero to Reading in 60 Days!” is the tagline on the promotional flyer that my university’s Department of Romance Languages uses to entice graduate students to enroll in “French for Reading” and “Spanish for Reading.”  Although I’m not starting from zero in either language, I certainly feel the effects of early and rapid acceleration!

Starting with the second class meeting – in both classes – my fellow students and I are reading progressively longer French and Spanish texts.  We silently translate passages, summarize them, or write out answers to reading comprehension questions as our professors stand by ready to offer advice and explanations.

The texts are written in the present tense, along with some instances of verbs used as adjectives, either as past participles (“A painting done by . . .”) or present participles (“Being a painter, he . . . “).  Our professors will teach us more complicated verb tenses later.  For now, my classmates and I are bolstering our comprehension of prepositions, conjunctions, and adverbs: the little words that are so crucial to instilling content with meaning.

A foundational vocabulary in a foreign language should be comprised of content words suitable to the specific field of study, balanced with function words applicable across all fields of study.  Content words are nouns and verbs; words with meaning in and of themselves.  By contrast, function words do not have inherent meaning, but they are vitally important to comprehension – no ifs, ands, or buts about it!

Time to Face Facts

In my homework translation exercises, I’ve noticed that I sometimes translate prepositions and adverbs incorrectly.  I haven’t taken the time to properly memorize these vocabulary words, and I tend to rush through their practice exercises because they’re so boring to do.

I’m tempted to let myself off the hook, but then I re-focus on my objective for taking “French for Reading” and “Spanish for Reading.”  I aim to achieve bibliographic proficiency in French and Spanish by the end of this semester.  I’ll fulfill my objective if I can attain four self-set goals:

  1. To comfortably browse French-language and Spanish-language websites containing FCIL resources;
  2. To comfortably construct search queries in these websites;
  3. To be reasonably confident that my search queries have returned relevant results; and
  4. To comfortably “read” (get the gist of) primary law and secondary source material.

Clearly, I need a strong understanding of French and Spanish function words in order to meet each of these goals.  Incorrectly translating a function word can assign meaning to a sentence that is very different from the meaning that the author intended.  We’ve all seen examples in case law where statutory interpretation hinged on the meaning of a single preposition!

Back to the Drawing Board

UNBefore attending law school, I was an aspiring international policymaker with a Master’s degree in International Relations.  The United Nations was one of my daily go-to websites for global news and information.  I come up with the idea of skimming U.N. Security Council  resolutions in French and Spanish in order to familiarize myself with the many function words that these documents employ.  I will memorize these words in context, rather than attempting to memorize a list of words in isolation.  Moreover, this task will enable me to search for and identify function words most commonly used in building a legal argument.

I want to choose a resolution that is substantive and addresses a well-known global event, so I choose U.N.S.C. Resolution 1441.  This resolution was cited as the legal justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and, as such, it is one of the U.N.’s most famous (or infamous) documents.

After skimming the Resolution in English, I print the text in French and Spanish.  Then I work my way through both texts, circling every function word I recognize.  Resolution 1441 is only five pages long, but the task takes a while – it’s chock-full of prepositions, conjunctions, and adverbs!  Fortunately, about a dozen of the same words recur frequently.  Later, I’ll gather sample sentences containing the same function words to compare them against the English-language text.  I need to parse out the different ways that the same function words can be translated.

An unexpected bonus of this task?  Each paragraph in Resolution 1441 begins with a present-tense verb (“decides,” “endorses,” “requests”) or a present participle adjectival verb (“recalling,” “recognizing,” “deploring”).  I make a list of all these verbs, leaving space in my notebook to conjugate them later.  My French and Spanish class syllabi show that our lessons on verb forms in the past tense are right around the corner.

3 responses to “It’s the Little Things That Matter Most: Enhancing Legal Vocabulary in French and Spanish with Function Words Found in United Nations Security Council Resolutions

  1. Pingback: Taking Stock: A Mid-Semester Progress Report on Foreign Language Study | DipLawMatic Dialogues

  2. Pingback: Sounds Good in Theory: An Initial Foray into Reading Primary Law in French and Spanish by Examining Constitutional Provisions | DipLawMatic Dialogues

  3. Pingback: Go Forth and Conquer! Some Final Thoughts about Studying French and Spanish in the Service of Greater FCIL Search and Retrieval Proficiency | DipLawMatic Dialogues

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