How culture, law, and language are all barriers to effective cross-cultural legal communication, specifically international commercial contracts


University of British Columbia

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Master of Laws - LLM




Today we live in a world of global economics, global communications, global politics, and attempts at the globalization of law. Because many countries around the world are adopting the laws of the western world, it may appear that, legally speaking, we are becoming more alike, however, a look below the surface reveals otherwise. What I attempt to show in this thesis is that the culture of a society affects, in a significant way, all aspects of that society, including its legal system and its use of language. The result being that if we wish to enter into any kind of international commercial relationship and expect it to be successful, we must be fully aware of the barriers to understanding created by the cultural, legal and linguistic differences which may not be readily apparent but which are clearly there. Because we automatically adopt the cultural values and norms of the society into which we are born, we take these values and norms as given, as automatic, as natural. It is only when we look carefully at other cultures do we realize that all the minute ways in which we see the world are culturally determined. In Chapter One I look at the many cultural differences that exist between nations - those that are readily apparent and those that are so subtle that we could never hope to understand them on our own. In this chapter we see just how much our way of thinking and our use of language are directly affected by our culture. In Chapter Two we see how these cultural differences are totally interwoven with our legal systems and what happens when the legal system of one nation is transplanted into a completely different culture. We see that even though the written laws may look the same as those of the exporting country, the way they are understood and used by the importing country is directly affected by that country's legal and cultural background. Chapter Three continues to examine these cultural differences by looking at the relationship between languages and legal systems and at the insurmountable problems that exist in trying to translate legal documents from one language to another. The alternative, the use of legal English in the drafting of international legal documents, poses additional problems as we see how it is intimately tied to the common law system and in such a way that makes it difficult for a non-common law lawyer to understand it or understand it in the same way a common law lawyer would. Finally, in Chapter Four, by analyzing extracts from actual international commercial contracts, we see how closely the language, structure, and concepts used in the contract are tied to the legal system from which the drafter has come, which is often different from that by which the contract is governed, and, as a result, how they operate as barriers to a complete understanding of the contractual terms by the parties involved.

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