Legal Language Testing

A Language Testing Scenario for Group or Individual Study
Prof. Glenn Fulcher

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Language testing and assessment for legal purposes falls into two broad areas: assessment for lawyers who are about to practice in a context where they will be required to use a second language, and assessment for court interpreters who are required to translate and interpret for speakers of languages other than those used by the court and police services of the country concerned. Language training programmes and tests exist for both, as miscommunication is high stakes, particularly when a witness or defendant is not fully able to participate in legal proceedings.

Most of the testing and assessment is for the certification of court interpreters. Access to the legal system, and the right to understand what is happening to you, are fundamental human rights. This video discusses the provision of interpretation for all the indigenous languages of Australia. Of particular importance is the need to have more interpreters so that clients do not remain in custody for longer than is necessary. Note the concern that interpreters make available legal concepts that may not be easily accessible in the L1.

A further concern relates to cultural issues. It is almost always the case that a person who does not speak the language used in the court is in a position of having much less power than the authorities. This can be extremely intimidating. Further, they may not have access to the cultural knowledge necessary to understand the procedures and processes of the court. Interpretation can therefore go beyond what might be thought of as the simple rendering of information in another language, to making accessible language, cultural meaning, and values, in a non-threatening manner.

Providing enough court interpreters can be challenging. This video explains how remote interpretation can be provided for some courts in the United States. This involves the use of close circuit television cameras, and the provision of simultaneous interpretation of what is being said in the court room. While this is much more efficient in terms of time to get cases before a judge, and very cost effective, there is not the personal contact that is sometimes beneficial if there are cultural as well as language problems.

For Discussion

  1. Make a list of potential negative consequences of miscommunication in court cases, where one or more participants do not speak the language of the court.
  2. What linguistic and communication skills might you want to test in an assessment of legal English for (a) a lawyer, and (b) a court interpreter?
  3. Look at this sample paper from the International Legal English Certificate. Conduct a content analysis. To what extent does this content represent the legal English domain?
  4. Look at the links on the right side of this web page. Choose one that looks interesting to you. What issues does it raise for the training and testing of lawyers and/or courter interpreters?
  5. Open your favourite search engine and type in 'legal English course' or 'court interpreter training'. Select one course. Who is the course targetted at? Do you think it would meet their needs? If the learners are assessed, how are they assessed?
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Useful Links and Resources


Other Resources


Hewitt, W., Romberger, W., Stansfield, C. W., & Van der Heide, M. (2003). The Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination. ATA Chronicle, 32, 29-34.

Stansfield, C. W., & Hewitt, W. (2005). Examining the predictive validity of a screening test for court interpreters. Language Testing, 22, 1-25.