Measuring how well contract attorneys speak foreign languages

Today I am delighted to introduce a surprising insight into foreign language testing for contract attorneys in the United States, by Andrea Kaluzny. As well as being a contract attorney herself, providing multilingual support for litigation, Andrea is very committed to volunteer work in several areas including, amongst others, animal welfare and human rights.

Once upon a time there were two different language assessment tests used in the USA, commonly referred to as the ALTA 30 Min and the ALTA 45 Min test. Then somehow the 45 Min ALTA test became the industry standard, haunting native speakers of several languages ever since. Yes, native speakers tend to flunk it, while Americans stand a fighting chance to pass. Only recently did I take the French version and obtained 93%, something I have yet to do in my native tongue (actually I would settle for even passing the 5th or 6th version of the German test at this point and not be looked upon as a fraud in recruitment agencies unfamiliar with the shortcomings of this test when they see my dismal results).

What is the ALTA test? Three English case reports, translated into the foreign language, followed by five multiple choice questions each. It is entirely in the language to be tested. It has a bit of the Multi State portion of the American Bar Exam with a touch of the SAT college entrance test (2 answers are invariably wrong with the remaining 2 either both being incorrect or both correct, with some on the German test where all 4 answers were wrong, followed at some point by the SAT high school level favorite “what is this article about?”). Sometimes the answers are in the text, sometimes they are not and you have to try to remember law school materials, episodes of Law and Order or just plain guess.

It is big business as we are never given our scores and the agency which assigns these tests has to pay for each test. The original German one did not even rise to the quality of Internet translation tools, with words and entire passages missing and incorrect and confusing grammar. It is slowly getting better but it is still a far cry from good. I know many American colleagues who have passed it but have yet to meet a native who has. So I have taken to cheating a bit – re-translate the article into English. And wouldn’t you know it? I did improve my grades. I have heard the same about the Spanish version from two different sources – natives failing while people who had learned Spanish travelling the country and dating locals managing to pass.

Only a few days ago I joked about the test with someone well familiar with them from an agency. He said that he had to keep several Japanese speakers from committing Hara-kiri in his office when learning that their Japanese was no good as per the ALTA test.

Do not get me wrong. I welcome elevating our industry to its proper status and testing may be the fair and best way to achieve this. However, flawed language tests are really not the way to go.

So what can the common contract attorney do? Smile when naive agents compliment you on your English, which is almost good enough to perform English document review, and do not give in to any temptation pointing out your US/UK law degrees and bar passage, nor should you ask them to speak louder and slower while trying to lend a foreign accent to your English. Smile when confused agents inform you that you do not seem to have any decent command of your native tongue as per their infallible language tests. Add skills and fields of interest outside the law, become an expert in a field which will continue to be sued. Add qualifications and polish up your experience. Never give up.

Thanks very much Andrea! And in my opinion, your last sentences can apply to translators and interpreters too!

5 thoughts on “Measuring how well contract attorneys speak foreign languages

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