Why Does Legal English Sound Like Gibberish to Many Spanish Law Students?

Vol. 43 No. 2


Katia Fach Gómez, JD, PhD, LLM, teaches conflict of laws, international arbitration, and international business transactions at the University of Zaragoza in Spain. She also teaches legal English at various Spanish institutions and is the author of the book El Derecho En Español. Terminología Y Habilidades Jurídicas Para Un Ejercicio Legal Exitoso (Successful Lawyering in Spanish) (Texas University Press, 2013). A prolific legal writer, Ms. Gómez has taught at a number of U.S., European, and Latin American universities. Disclaimer: Ms. Gómez has been recently appointed as national expert at the European Research Council. The views expressed are purely those of the writer and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the European Commission.

Legal English is unfortunately still a rare bird in law faculties in public universities in Spain. However, a command of legal English—the generic term used in this article to refer to both a specific legal subject taught in English and an instrumental “English for Specific Purposes” (ESP) subject in the legal sphere—is one of the assets that the voracious labor market demands of even recent graduates. This article is a personal reflection on the multiple dysfunctional factors in Spain that, together, prevent this gap from closing as quickly and completely as would be desirable. My article also shows that other, more auspicious developments in the legal English teaching and learning field are starting to take root in Spain and that there are also reasons for believing that Spanish lawyers can be relied on to take the lead in the long overdue “degibberization” of legal English.

Shortcomings in the Learning of English at Pre-university Level in Spain

The 2012 First European Survey on Language Competencies, which was supported by the European Commission, analyzed the foreign language proficiency of students in the last year of lower secondary education or in the second year of upper secondary education. See http://ec.europa.eu/languages/eslc/index.html. Spanish students’ results in English as a first foreign language are worryingly poor, with only 29 percent of students achieving independent-user level in reading, 25 percent in listening, and 27 percent in writing. These data are in marked contrast with the results obtained in the same survey by students in other European countries such as, for example, Sweden (81, 91, and 75 percent) and Holland (60, 77, and 60 percent). The Spanish results are particularly poor if we also take into account the fact that the Spanish education system scored highly in such important areas as the onset of early language learning, target foreign-language lesson time per week, use of information and communications technologies (ICT) to enhance foreign language learning, and guest teachers from abroad.

At first glance, finding an overall explanation for the disappointing results obtained by Spanish students in the survey seems rather unlikely. In fact, however, these general conclusions might be modulated by some factors such as the better language skills showed by students from regions such as the Basque Country and Catalonia, where several official languages coexist, or the finding that the best results were obtained by students from regions with higher per capita incomes, such as Navarre. See http://ec.europa.eu/languages/eslc/docs/Spain-national-report-eslc-vol-1_es.pdf. Despite these specific regional features, I nevertheless consider that there are circumstances existing in Spain that, when taken as a whole, do make it possible to explain the general English shortcomings of pre-university students.

First, the survey found that, in Spain, the parents’ proficiency in the target language—English—is very low in relation to that of parents in other European countries. This is partly due to the fact that many Spanish parents whose children are currently in secondary education grew up in a Spain that was far less open and internationalized than it is today, and one in which the target language, inasmuch as there was one, was French, and not English. Second, the levels of Spanish students’ target language exposure and use through visits abroad are lower than in other European countries. Third, target language exposure and use through traditional and new media among Spanish students are also low when compared to levels in other countries. A highly relevant aspect here, which is discussed in the European Commission’s Study on the Use of Subtitling, http://eacea.ec.europa.eu/llp/studies/study_on_the_use_of_subtitling_en.php, is that foreign TV programs and movies are usually dubbed in Spain, while in countries like Sweden and Holland, they are usually subtitled. Fourth, the number of teachers in the Spanish education system for which the target language is a first language is low compared with the number of Germans teaching in Belgium, for instance. Spain is also below the European average in terms of the number of people who receive training to teach the target language as a foreign language, as well as in the percentage of teachers who are completely specialized in the target language.

ESP Teaching in Spanish Public Universities

Unlike in the United States, most universities in Spain are public. Not only do they outnumber private universities, but they also have more students and are placed in international university quality rankings, although they score rather poorly. Thus, the 2013 Academic Ranking of World Universities includes 10 Spanish universities, all of them public, in the top 500 universities worldwide. See http://www.shanghairanking.com/ARWU2013.html.

Where Spanish universities’ handling of ESP is concerned, and bearing in mind the negative results obtained by Spanish secondary school students in the survey noted above, the Spanish saying that inevitably comes to mind is “poor rushes make bad baskets.” In the same vein, a European Commission study, Effects on the European Economy of Shortages of Foreign Language Skills in Enterprise, http://ec.europa.eu/languages/documents/doc421_en.pdf, cited Spain as an example of one of the countries that takes least advantage of its export opportunities because of shortcomings in its language training.

Unfortunately, there is a risk that this unfavorable situation will become entrenched, as the Spanish university system has failed to assimilate the fact that ESP is a vital tool for a successful career in the highly competitive, globalized, and specialized legal field. As this article will show, the role assigned to English in university studies in general and law faculties in particular leaves clear room for improvement. On the grounds that these general assertions are naturally open to debate and dispute—and generating debate is precisely one of the aims of this article—I will describe in the following sections the main problems I face when teaching legal English to students at Spanish public universities. The situation contrasts, in various respects, with my teaching experience in Spanish private universities.

My Experience Teaching Legal English in a Spanish Public University

It is no exaggeration to say that both law professors and students in public universities in Spain who opt to get involved in legal English classes are as brave as bullfighters. Spanish professors who decide to offer legal English courses have to face multiple obstacles that will convince them time and time again that the effort involved will not enhance their CVs enough to make it worthwhile. To mention just a few of these drawbacks, not all Spanish law faculty curricula allow for regulated subjects to be taught in a foreign language. Adapting curricula is a long, complex process, so many of these English courses end up being grouped with the faculty’s “soft” courses (complementary academic activities, etc.), meaning that the teaching hours do not count towards the compulsory teaching load and professors effectively end up teaching the courses as unpaid volunteers.

Even those who do manage to get their work fully recognized by the university usually fail to convince the academic authorities that the extra time needed to prepare these classes should be counted and that there should be a budget for buying specialized books. This can sometimes lead to well-meaning teaching staff having to make a conscientious effort to search for and interconnect legal documents in English from highly diverse sources—even from such reliable sources as the Internet!—to be able to offer students coherent materials that not only match their language abilities but also enable them to acquire the skills currently demanded by the professional market.

Another worrying aspect is that, according to criticisms made by university English professors at innovation conferences, the well-meaning law professors who propose these teaching activities in public universities do not always have a good-enough working knowledge of all aspects of the English language to guarantee that students will really benefit from their teaching. Surprising though it may seem, some law faculties allow Spanish professors to teach legal English without previously asking for proof that they possess the required language level, even though proficiency is easy enough to demonstrate with tools such as the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. It seems to be taken for granted that university professors growing up in a country characterized precisely by the shortcomings noted above in teaching and learning English in schools and universities will nevertheless have an excellent command of legal English.

From the students’ point of view, taking part in legal English classes requires them to think outside the box, the box in this case being the impoverished and sometimes obsolete Spanish public universities. First of all, they have to overcome the proverbial dread that grips them if they have to speak out loud during these classes. Their pre-university English training based on improving reading comprehension and a university entrance exam with no spoken English test means that Spanish students have serious problems when they have to speak English, particularly a type as highly specialized as legal English. In addition, too few public universities actively encourage students to participate in useful activities such as public speaking competitions and international debating events, which could go some way towards rectifying their shortcomings in spoken English. These failings are thrown into even greater relief, if this is possible, by the fluency of Erasmus and Americampus exchange students who spend a semester studying at Spanish public universities—students who are meanwhile forced to improve their legal Spanish in record time given that legal English classes are in very short supply in Spanish public universities.

The difficulty of holding debates in class owing to poor language skills is not the only problem faced by Spanish students enrolled in legal English courses. They may also have to take a tolerant approach to professors who are not consistently capable of teaching the subject at the level it deserves because of the institutional or personal shortcomings mentioned above. Where academic recognition of their efforts is concerned, students may find that the legal English classes are worth fewer credits than other, more classic courses on Spanish law curricula, such as Canon Law or Roman Law. Learning may also be impeded by having students with varying degrees of legal knowledge and language abilities in the same classroom, which may lead some students to conclude that legal English classes are of no use to them—often, unfortunately, because they feel that the standard of English demanded is out of their reach. Another factor to add to these language problems is that current law faculty curricula do not usually accept that subjects like comparative law, conventional international law, and international arbitration are relevant to current legal practice. Therefore, if students’ first encounter with these complex realities is in a legal English class, all the language problems mentioned previously combine to multiply the difficulties involved in learning.

The information that I have just presented cannot be interpreted as anything but very discouraging omens for Spanish public university students’ real prospects of having access to and undertaking international legal work.

A More Hopeful Set of Factors Starts to Take Root in Spain

It is important to point out that the map of Spanish higher education in law has altered considerably over the past few years. First, at the time of Spain’s economic boom, a good number of private universities were created, and these had to find a niche in the market. These institutions needed to differentiate themselves from public universities and justify their high fees by offering courses with a more practical and international focus—that is, with more teaching time given over to languages, more teachers from abroad, and more opportunities for students to study for part of their degree programs in foreign universities and even to obtain a Spanish and a foreign degree simultaneously. Coinciding with this new approach, several foreign universities, including American universities such as New York University, Saint Louis University, Schiller International University, and Suffolk University, opened campuses in Spain, attracting not only foreign students to their degree courses but also increasing numbers of Spanish students.

These factors have to be taken into account when presenting an accurate picture of the current situation of legal English training in Spanish universities, which can be a study in contrasts, as we shall see. By way of example, my personal experience teaching a legal English module in a Spanish private university was completely different from the worrying situation outlined above. From the professors’ point of view, teaching legal English in a Spanish private university does not mean swimming against the tide but, rather, is actively encouraged by the university management, as training Spanish lawyers who are capable of working in English is one of these institutions’ hallmarks. On a practical level, this means that professors are provided with suitable resources and the administrative support needed to focus their efforts on teaching their subject as well as possible. The profile of legal experts working in law faculties in private universities in Spain is also very different from that of the government employees who teach law in the public university sector. Most of the private universities are in Madrid and Barcelona, cities whose importance for business and whose cosmopolitan character mean that the majority of foreign law firms and branches of Spanish law firms with international clients are also to be found there. Private universities can therefore call on the expertise of lawyers who have at least studied for a master’s degree in law in English, have often also passed a bar exam in an English-speaking country, or even studied their law degrees in English. Such specific training and professional practice have a clear influence on these professionals’ teaching, which is based on resolving complex legal problems arising in the practice of law through the medium of very strong legal English.

Law students taught by professionals of this type from the outset have an enormous incentive in terms of both legal knowledge and language. The point is that, in private universities, legal English is not a one-off, almost extracurricular initiative offered to a heterogeneous mass of students who are unable to understand its importance as a subject because of the university system, but a major strand of the curriculum that externalizes the quality of their academic programs. University legal English courses are therefore consistent, varied, and specialized, leading students in the same class, whether undergraduates or postgraduates, to acquire comparable knowledge of both law and language and making learning goals easier to plan for and achieve. In addition, as private universities are continually enhancing their academic contacts with universities in the English-speaking world, it is common to have exchange students in class, which also enriches legal English class dynamics. When students are at the stage of joining the labor market, private universities are also usually better equipped to provide more effective and personal treatment to those who show interest in pursuing international legal careers, as is clear from the profiles of law firms offering internships and attending job fairs organized by private universities.

Banking on a Healthy Future for Legal English in Spain

One factor that cannot be ignored is the large number of English speakers who either actually live in Spain or have a second home there. The use of the nationality criterion by various EU and Spanish conflict-of-law rules means de facto that these English-speaking citizens take their own national laws to the countries in which they settle. In Spain, this can be clearly seen in the sphere of inheritance law. The death of English nationals in Spain has added a new twist to classic problems of private international law such as renvoi, which has awakened interest in studying institutions such as trusts, which have no exact equivalent in Spanish law and have also created a multitude of problems in the legal translation field.

On a business level, the severe economic crisis gripping Europe has forced Spanish companies to double their export efforts, while foreign investment in Spain in the forms of land share and land purchase is also on the increase. Many of these transactions are carried out in English and the participants therefore need professionals who not only have adequate legal knowledge, but who also speak English.

It is clear from the scenario outlined above that Spain could be a good place to work for English-speaking lawyers. As well as working for foreign law firms with offices in Spain, English-speaking lawyers may also find themselves in demand with Spanish law firms that are looking to internationalize their client portfolio because of Spain’s economic situation. Along with opportunities to practice their profession—not only in the fields of providing legal advice or litigation but also in the growing arbitration sector—English-speaking lawyers may also have career prospects in the teaching sphere. Working for a private Spanish university or a foreign university with a campus in Spain could broaden their professional horizons and encourage them to take on challenges in the legal field that they might not consider in their own countries, such as writing an academic paper or a doctoral thesis in English. They could put their legal English to good use by teaching courses in lawyers’ associations or Spanish law firms, which are already highly aware of legal English’s important role in the building of a successful practice.

Without in any way contradicting my wish for English-speaking lawyers to pursue their careers in Spain, writing this article provides me with an ideal opportunity to call on Spanish lawyers trained in public university law faculties to contribute to a healthy future of legal English in Spain. In a country that has always taken great pride in its welfare state’s achievements in key areas such as health and education, it is regrettable that Spanish public universities are not currently capable of providing their students adequate training to practice as lawyers in an international arena, where English is the lingua franca. Because the economic crisis will become the mantra that will enable government bodies in Spain to justify their inaction and erect a shield to hide behind for many years, we need to make the most of existing skills and resources so that public university legal training will be able to retain its essential nature but become capable of responding to the demands of the labor market. For this reason, Spanish private universities are very good role models where the preferential treatment of legal English is concerned. Likewise, the incorporating of legal English modules into the framework of the new master’s degrees jointly sponsored by lawyers’ associations and public universities is an encouraging example of the type of collaboration that should become more widespread in the future. From my point of view, which is that of a lawyer with professional links to a Spanish public university, it is up to us all—academic authorities, teaching staff, lawyers’ associations, and practicing lawyers—to make sure that legal English stops sounding like gibberish to many Spanish law students.


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