Sounds Good in Theory: An Initial Foray into Reading Primary Law in French and Spanish by Examining Constitutional Provisions

By Katherine Orth

In my previous post in the Acquiring Foreign Languages series, I provided a mid-semester progress report of my “French for Reading” and “Spanish for Reading classes.”  At times, I’ve found it difficult to balance the coursework for these classes with my self-designed FCIL supplemental practice tasks.  I decide to start reading primary law in small, manageable increments by focusing on a few specific constitutional provisions of Francophone and Hispanophone countries.

Exams are Looming

I work in an academic law library.  Every year without fail, more students fill our reading room as soon as the calendar page changes from October to November.  The students arrive earlier in the morning and stay later in the evening.  Over the course of the day, their laptops become increasingly surrounded by class notes, flash cards, and study aids (not to mention water bottles, coffee cups, and food wrappers).

After I graduated from law school, I thought I was finished with the grind of exam preparation.  Yet I now find myself preparing for the Foreign Language Proficiency exams in French and Spanish that await me later in November.  Like the law students, my desk has a teetering pile of class notes, assigned readings, and study aids on it.  Like the law students, I enter November with a bit of trepidation.

Cursed with Living in Interesting Times

I’ve already encountered some aspects of legal terminology in French and Spanish, first by reading children’s guides to lawmaking in foreign jurisdictions, and later by reading United Nations Security Council Resolutions.  I’m eager to start reading primary law in French and Spanish, but I’d like to take it in small, manageable pieces.

Julienne Grant’s recent thought-provoking post on DipLawMatic Dialogues provided the seeds of inspiration for my next FCIL research practice task.  In describing the Catalonian referendum and the subsequent forceful response by the Spanish government, Julienne highlighted the constitutional arguments emanating from both Madrid and Barcelona.

Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution authorizes (subject to legislative approval) “all measures necessary” against acts taken by an autonomous region that are “seriously prejudicial” to the national interest.  This Article – which has been described as the “nuclear option” – got me wondering about how many of the world’s constitutions have similar provisions, and what kind of language is utilized in these provisions.

Take it From the Top

ConstituteThere are over fifty countries that have either Spanish or French as the national language.  Some of these countries, such as Canada, have dealt with questions of secession in recent years.  For my “Article 155-type” search, I’m making use of the website Constitute, an initiative of the Comparative Constitutions Project.  Constitute is a platform that enables the researcher to conduct full-text searches across national constitutions through word and phrase, or subject matter searches.

Constitute provides annotated, unofficial English-language translations of the world’s constitutions.  In my previous tasks, I’ve gone straight to the original Spanish- and French-language documents.  This time, I conduct searches within Constitute — by terms and phrases, and by using the topic filters – in order to seek out the provisions in English.  Later, I’ll examine the provisions within the original French or Spanish constitutional texts, focusing on the language that different countries use to describe the rights and obligations of both governments and citizens.

For this task, I’m not concentrating on the substantive content of the constitutional provisions.  Instead, I’m searching for and parsing out subtle variations in word usage.  The task is so engrossing that I periodically find myself losing focus from exclusively French- and Spanish-language returned results.  For example, when a keyword search of “autonomous” returns results including the constitutions of China and Spain, I was very tempted to compare the pertinent provisions from those countries’ constitutions.

In Other News . . .Screenshot-2017-11-6 News in Slow French Learn French Online

Reading foreign languages can be tiring, particularly when my concentration (or motivation!) is at a low ebb.  When this happens, I try to ease the strain by visiting websites that combine listening and reading practice.  Every week or so, I check out the News in Slow Spanish and News in Slow French websites.  Listening to a news story or commentary on current events while reading the accompanying French- or Spanish-language transcript is both informative and relaxing.  Translations appear by hovering the cursor over the text, eliminating the need to rely on context or consult a dictionary.  These sites are primarily subscription-based, so free content is limited, but they are updated every week.

Regular study and practice is essential at this point in the semester.  Keep calm and carry on!

One response to “Sounds Good in Theory: An Initial Foray into Reading Primary Law in French and Spanish by Examining Constitutional Provisions

  1. Pingback: Searching High and Low: An Initial Foray into Conducting Known-Item Searches for FCIL Resources in French and Spanish | DipLawMatic Dialogues

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