Linguistic Lawyer: Benefit of Learning Foreign Languages

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By Saisha Bacha

‘Language is the light of the mind’, as correctly defined by of one of the greatest philosophers in the world, John Stuart Mill[1]. Language has come to be understood as the channel to express one’s thoughts. Thus effectively, thoughts may be the same but language allows for different interpretations of those thoughts. Language is that tool of the conscious mind that enables one to communicate with and comprehend one another. What began as random sounds, noises, over time has developed into 2000 languages worldwide. The need to know the language common to those around you has been long prevalent, leading to the development of multiple languages. Today, with the era of globalization and internationalism this ambit of commonality has expanded worldwide, across national borders.

Importance of Learning A Foreign Language

With increasing competition and the rat race to do better and bigger than the other, it has become imperative to take every additional effort to hone skills to get ahead of the crowd. Linguistics is one way to achieve that leverage. For professionals such as lawyers, these words of Frank Smith[2] are of crucial importance. He says, ‘learning one language sets you in a corridor for life, two languages open every door along the way.’ As aptly stated by him, there is always a benefit of learning an additional language. In India, most students learn English in schools and regional languages in vernacular schools. For those who know English already, learning a foreign language would be beneficial. Whereas for those who don’t, English would be a must.

Speaking of foreign languages, the demand for professionals with knowledge of multiple languages has greatly increased. A professional who can communicate with a person in a language that he understands, enters his mind whereas, a professional who can communicate in the language of the opposite person, directly enters his heart. An important competency of a professional is to be able to give his work a personal touch. What better way to do that than to make your clients feel comfortable and at ease. Thus, the knowledge of a foreign language can benefit a professional by:

  1. An enhanced client base
  2. Increasing goodwill
  3. Garnering trust of client
  4. Enabling better mediation and negotiation
  5. Expanding practice at a global level

Avenues and Opportunities for Lawyers learning foreign languages

 Legal practice across the globe has become transnational. The only division perhaps is that of Civil law and Common law jurisdictions. The Civil law jurisdiction spans across the United States and Europe on an average. Thus, if one wants to practice in this jurisdiction then languages such as English, Spanish, Arabic, French, German would be of use. Whereas, for the Common law jurisdiction as in England, Scotland, Canada, India, Pakistan one would require knowledge of English, Hindi, Urdu. While, languages such as Latin, Sanskrit, French would prove to be beneficial no matter where you go. In fact, these are the languages in which law was originally written, hence knowledge of Latin and correct usage of a Latin phrase in court would certainly show the in-depth research and linguistic skills of the lawyer. So if you had to choose one language that could prove most beneficial, which would it be? Global statistics show that Mandarin is the most widely used language across the globe. Coupled with that, the demand for litigation in China is also on the rise. Thus, the first choice of a foreign language now and for quite a few years to come, would be Mandarin.

Different specializations in the field of law demand know-how of different languages. International Arbitration and Mediation require lawyers well-versed in various foreign languages. The official working languages of the International Court of Arbitration are English and French. An international lawyer may work on a wide range of issues for e.g., corporate issues such as negotiating business deals for companies located in different countries, litigating cases involving citizens or businesses located across the globe, inter-nation agreements or treaties. Different judicial systems, languages, cultures, and economic and political climates create crippling impediments in resolving international disputes. In such an environment, multilingual lawyers would be indispensable. Other areas requiring the services of a multilingual international lawyer include trade, business, tax, law. An international trade lawyer counsels clients on the rules associated with trading between countries and can offer advice on customs requirements for countries that trade across borders. Also, international trade lawyers may assist clients with financing foreign transactions by preparing and negotiating documentary letters of credit or other legal trade documents. Here too, working knowledge of a foreign language would be valuable. Another very practical approach would be to learn the foreign language of the country in which one’s clients are based or firm is affiliated with. Other professional avenues that open up to those who know foreign languages are in areas such as legal translation, interpretation, teaching, and academia, legal journalism etc. For professionals having the knowledge of foreign languages, whether one or many, it’s always an added advantage. Learning a foreign language will not only add value but will also give an edge over the others.

Additional Benefits of Learning Languages

Languages enable holistic development of one’s personality. Learning a foreign language, and the culture of that country, is one of the most enriching experiences. Language is the voice of the culture of a certain people thus, learning their language enables us to open our minds, broaden our horizon and embrace the diversity of cultures.

Statistics on Languages and how to learn them

As per a study conducted by BBC in 2017 on ‘The 10 Most Spoken Languages in the World’ Chinese (Mandarin) is the most widely spoken. Followed by English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic and others. It is interesting to note that out of 10 languages mentioned, 3 are Indian languages, namely, Hindi, Bengali and Punjabi. Soon enough the world will start finding the need to learn these. The best way to learn a language is to join classes or find a tutor. A wide array of material in language studies besides language courses is also available; self-help books, dictionaries, grammar books, online lessons and electronic translators. However, interactive learning is considered to be the best as language learning is a social activity. Equal importance must be given to speaking and writing skills. Learning the pronunciation of a language is the prime purpose and grammar of a language essentially helps in constructing phrases and sentences.

To conclude, one must devote time and energy to learning another language whether foreign or native.  Apart from the joy of speaking a foreign language, it would be extremely beneficial in all walks of life. I agree with Samuel Johnson[4], ‘Language is the dress of thought’. Then what could be better than to adorn these thoughts in robes of diverse languages?

Saisha Bacha is a student of Maharashtra National Law University Mumbai and is a research associate at Lawlex Organization.

References:

[1] John Stuart Mill was an English philosopher, political economist and civil servant. One of the most influential thinkers in the history of liberalism, he contributed widely to social theory, political theory and political economy.

[2] Frank Smith is a contemporary psycholinguist recognized for his contributions to linguistics and cognitive psychology, both nationally and internationally, over the past 35 years.

[3] Federico Fellini was an Italian film director and screenwriter. Known for his distinct style that blends fantasy and baroque images with earthiness, he is recognized as one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers of all time

[4] Samuel Johnson, often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer

  • Chirag Balyan

    nice write up