Language lunches strike chord with students

Landing a summer law internship overseas frequently requires fluency in a foreign language. Thanks to Professor Daniel Gervais, students concerned about keeping up their language skills during law school now have an opportunity for regular conversation at monthly language lunches.

Gervais, an expert in intellectual property law and faculty director of the LL.M. program, started language lunches not only to help students maintain their skills in a second or third language, but also to give LL.M. students an opportunity to converse in their native languages. A Québécois who is fluent in English, French and Spanish and has a basic understanding of German, Portuguese, Italian, Chinese and Dutch, Gervais also realized that helping students maintain their fluency could open career doors for them.

Gervais launched the idea in fall 2012 with a French lunch. He then added Spanish, and fellow faculty, including Professors Ingrid Wuerth (German) and John Haley and Tami Lefko (Japanese), stepped forward to host lunches in other languages. “My original intent was job-oriented,” Gervais said. “I wanted to help students get foreign internships over the summer, and most of the firms in Europe or Latin America require a second language, not just English. Students can be intimidated by the idea of an internship overseas, thinking their language skills are not up to par. The lunches give them an environment to test their abilities. Being able to read in a (foreign) language and understand most of a conversation with your boss—that’s enough to start.”

Dashiell Renaud ’13, now working at Wikimedia, found the lunches to be “fantastic.”

“Learning and maintaining a second language is a vital asset for practicing law,” he said. “Even with my current position, for which language skills are not inherently necessary, French has been a valuable skill. When we needed to correspond with a French Canadian member of the Wikimedia community, it fell to me to write to him in French. And I was called upon to verify that the translation of our new trademark policy into French was done correctly.”

Led by a faculty member, the informal lunches typically involve watching a newscast in the language du jour or discussing a topic. Both J.D. and LL.M. students flock to the lunches, as much for social interaction as to polish their language skills. Taking their cue, Gervais has broadened the scope beyond the noon hour, hosting a French movie night in November with plans for a Spanish fiesta in April and a trip to Arrington Vineyards just south of Nashville in the spring. The international connection to the Tennessee vineyard? “We will bring French food,” he says with a Gallic shrug.

Vanderbilt Law Magazine Winter 2014