“I can read poetry and literature in a foreign language – how do I adapt my reading proficiency into reading legal prose?”
“How can I build a foreign language legal vocabulary organically, without relying on a specialized legal dictionary?”
These are the questions that I found myself wondering about, even after successfully completing graduate-level courses at my university in “French for Reading” and “Spanish for Reading” in the Fall 2017 semester. I had passed the Foreign Language Proficiency exams – both of which excerpted two or three pages of fictional works for comprehension and translation tasks. In February, I fulfilled a longstanding personal goal: reading The Little Prince in the original French. But dipping into legal prose, as I have done from time to time over the last several months, continues to be a laborious task.
Something I’d noticed as a student in “French for Reading” and “Spanish for Reading” is that I tended to either pore over the readings, or else skim over them. I rarely paced myself; I tended toward one extreme or the other, depending on the nature of the assignment. For homework assignments requiring translation, I painstakingly read every word. I often revised translations two or three times before handing them in, eager to earn maximum points. By contrast, for in-class or homework assignments that only necessitated reading, or reading and answering questions, I blithely skimmed over the passages. Since I had taken French and Spanish classes years ago, I wasn’t a beginner in either language. I was unintentionally coasting on my previous knowledge of grammar structure and vocabulary, rarely pausing to fine-tune my understanding of grammar points or to note and review new vocabulary words.
With classes over (and no outside authority to assess my progress and assign grades), I knew that I needed to settle on a systematic approach. I prefer a “by-the-book” regimen. Some of my Spanish assignments came from the class-assigned text, Spanish for Reading. I decided to return to this book and use it from start to finish. I also bought French for Reading, a textbook written by the same author that follows the same pedagogical method.
Karl Sandberg, the author of both textbooks, touts a “programmed approach.” Most of the reading exercises are series of sentences, up to thirty at a time, that build on each other. Each chapter concludes with a reading passage incorporating some of those sentences, as well as the chapter’s newly-introduced vocabulary. Both books estimate between 70 and 120 hours to complete the text. Since the books serve as a refresher for me, rather than an introduction, I’m nearing completion now that I’ve passed the 30-hour mark. Although each chapter introduces hundreds of vocabulary words, I typically encounter only 25 to 40 unfamiliar words per chapter.
I’ve found two key advantages in working with French for Reading and Spanish for Reading. First, the reading passages are almost exclusively nonfiction. The reader encounters a wealth of useful vocabulary that one could expect to see in legal prose, such as “los téchnicos” (experts) and “les dirigeants” (leaders). The shorter Spanish textbook boasts a vocabulary of 2,000 words; the French textbook, 4,000 words. Secondly, the reading passages that conclude the chapters assign various tasks to keep things interesting. For example, the instructions accompanying the five-paragraph reading passage at the end of chapter five in Spanish for Reading direct the reader to complete the passage in four minutes. I reverted back to my old habit of poring over the text, and I’m embarrassed to report that it took me three tries to complete the task as instructed. It was a useful reminder that more time does not necessarily mean better comprehension!
I once heard a reference librarian colleague of mine say, “legal research is so often learned at the point of need.” Her statement described the sometimes difficult task of imploring law students to familiarize themselves with legal research strategy and resources in the controlled environment of the classroom, before they try to “wing it” with an actual legal research problem assigned by a supervising attorney.
A legal research task in a foreign language is surely challenging enough without the added burden of looking up mysterious vocabulary words or second-guessing my interpretation of legal prose. Certainly, the road to conducting FCIL research with ease is long one. For now, I have to mind the speed bumps and take my time adapting my recognition vocabulary to legal prose before I can proceed into FCL legal research tasks at full speed.