How to study languages on the internet

You may not realise it, but if you are a lawyer, you are automatically a linguist. When you consider that you may spend hours debating the interpretation of one word in a contract and many thousands or even millions of pounds may hang on that interpretation, you’ll realise that your linguistic skills are pretty finely tuned.

It is highly likely therefore that you have a gift for languages and there are of course excellent international opportunities for lawyers who can speak a foreign tongue. We take a look here at the tremendous amount of material there is, free on the internet, that allows you to learn a foreign language both in general and in a specific legal context. In this article we look at learning languages in general, and in the next, we will look at specific information for lawyers.

Online dictionaries

One of the best is which covers, amongst other languages, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Italian. You can go from English to the target language and back again, or between other languages. The great advantage is that it shows you the gender of the nouns and the conjugation of verbs. It also puts them in a sentence so that you can see how they fit. It gives you several options and there is also a forum, where, if you cannot find a translation, you can throw the word out to other speakers online and discuss it.

You may prefer something speedier and less elaborate, in which case can be useful. It offers translation of English to many other languages and generally just offers you a one word translation, without gender or conjugation, but it is quick and clear.

Online dictionaries are great, but there is one problem with them if you are travelling – the wifi or network may not work or may be slow. For this reason you may prefer to download a dictionary onto your tablet and have it on instant access and for this Collins or Cassells dictionaries are a very good choice.

Online translation services

These have come on a long way in the past few years and are less likely to come up with hilarious mistranslations, like the salutation “Dear John”, becoming Expensive John. “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, when translated backwards and forwards became “Mary has had a small lamb”, which could be embarrassing.

Babelfish and Google Translate are well established translation services and students of mine have managed to correspond very successfully using this on a deal with Italy where the Italian business people spoke no English and the English no Italian.

Babelfish itself claims that the machine translation is only about 70 per cent accurate and does attempt to entice you to buy a human translation. In the machine version, grammar is often a bit ropey, but the sense is generally there. Of course any important legal documents would have to be translated properly, but it is very useful to perhaps use the machine for simple emails arranging, for example, where to meet.

Newspapers and magazines

There is a fantastic range of newspapers and magazines available in every language, so that it is often hard to know where to start. Just Googling something like “French Newspapers” will lead you to the official websites. The wonderful thing is that most newspapers also offer mini videos, so you can read the article at your leisure and then watch the video, thus hearing the language as well. Good French newspapers and magazines include Le Figaro, Paris Match and Liberation, Italian ones include Corriere della Sera, La Reppublica and Oggi and Spanish ones El Pais and La Vanguardia.

It is a really good idea to look for articles about international events, since, if you already have a general idea of the story line, it is much easier to follow. It is also a good idea to look at advertisements. Advertisements are specifically designed to make their message clear and memorable! Images will support the words and they often use rhymes, or alliteration to make the words stick, which can be a great help.


How about if you want to make contact with lawyers in other countries or lawyers in England who speak another language? It may seem obvious, but it is well worth putting something about yourself in the target language, or searching for your equivalent using the language you wish. Examples in French might be, avocat, in Italian, avvocato, anwalt in German and advogado in Portuguese.


One of the best ways to memorise something is through singing, a technique that has been used for centuries, as babes learn nursery rhymes, perched on their parents’ knees. The repetitive choruses and attractive tunes make words memorable and accents easier to imitate. How often have you noticed a teenager with an English accent, transform themselves into an American, once they start humming a pop tune. But the web has given us another gift, the ability to read the lyrics. All you have to do is to put a few words of a song that you can remember, anywhere within a song, into Google and more than likely you will come up with the complete lyrics, both in English and the target language. There are a variety of websites that offer this service, and one of them is For example the French version of the Beatles’ From Me to You is “Des bises de moi pour toi” and if you put that into you get the complete lyrics in French.

Legal cases

One of the most interesting ways to get a feel for the legal language used in other countries is to follow celebrity legal cases in newspapers abroad. Not surprisingly the Italians have taken a great interest in the case of Nigella Lawson and her Italian born assistants. Simply put “le sorelle grillo” (“the Grillo sisters” into Google and you come up with all sorts of articles. Another famous court case which led to heated debate was that of Oscar Pistorius, accused of murdering his girlfriend. Simply put “Pistorius et sa petite amie” (“Pistorius and his girlfriend”) into Google to get the French version of events.

Finally …

This is just a quick overview of some of the material available. There are also apps and special language learning sites which enable you to set up exchanges in other countries and ones which enable you to list all the vocabulary you know. In the next article we will look at some of the specialist legal material available on the internet for learning foreign languages.

Susan Isaacs has an MA from Oxford and has been running courses in the City for the past twenty five years. She has taught specialist courses accredited by SRA for CPD and her clients include students from Norton Rose, Addleshaw Goddards, Linklaters, Herbert Smith, Simmons and Simmons, Clyde and Co, Slaughter and May and Laurence Graham. As she says “Most students like and use all the facilities available on the web but still say there is no substitute for going to classes where a teacher will talk to you, correct you and explain things you do not understand.”


Susan Isaacs is running a series of language courses for City professionals starting at the end of January 2014. Courses are held in locations near the Barbican and near London Bridge. There are courses for beginners, intermediate and advanced speakers of French, Spanish and Italian as well as beginner and intermediate students of Portuguese and German. See for full details of costs (which are very reasonable), dates and times.

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