New Zealand Law Society - Using native languages enhances communication: Emma Va'ai

Using native languages enhances communication: Emma Va'ai

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By Turei Mackey 

Although law covers a vast array of areas, one of the recurring features in all is the art of communication – particularly with one’s clients.

And while interpreters can assist lawyers when a client is not fluent in the New Zealand English language, the benefit of being able to converse in a person’s native language allows a lawyer to work better with their client.

There are 298 lawyers in the country currently registered as being fluent in two or more languages.

Emma Va’ai, a family law specialist at Tania Davis Law in Porirua, is one of only two lawyers registered on the New Zealand Law Society’s “Find a lawyer” search page as being fluent in New Zealand Sign Language, or NZSL, one of the country’s three official languages approved under the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006.

Mrs Va'ai finds herself from time to time assisting in legal matters for one of the 24,000 New Zealanders who use NZSL as a form of communication.

She says while Deaf clients are often happy to communicate via email she generally will meet with them in person and without the aid of an interpreter.

“It is more difficult to convey some of the legal ideas into sign language but because of my knowledge of New Zealand Sign Language I know when some concepts don’t translate easily and I can give extra explanation when needed,” she says.

“Although I have been quite cautious in that if it gets to a point of swearing an affidavit or signing a relationship property agreement, then I will have an interpreter present because I need to be absolutely sure that it is explained properly.

“But often I find I'm watching what they (the interpreter) are interpreting and if they misunderstand something, and accidentally get the wrong end of the stick in what I have been trying to explain, I can simply correct and clarify that point as we go.”

She assisted Victoria University in 2011 when it held an exercise for students undertaking NZSL training in interpreting in legal forums. The exercise involved lawyers performing mock proceedings for the students to interpret and later critique.

“I went over the details of a relationship property agreement so they could go through the different aspects. And because I know how it is to interpret such language I intentionally made sure it was difficult, and explained the agreement as most lawyers would to help highlight the issues for the students.’’

As with many Kiwis who are bilingual, Emma was introduced to sign language as a young child.

“My parents were friends with our neighbours who had a deaf son the same age as me.

“His mother was learning a version of sign language, which was slightly different to NZSL, and my mum learnt a little bit as she would babysit him. So myself and my siblings learnt bits and pieces and I probably learnt a bit more due to being the same age and picking this up in the first five years of my life.’’

While studying law and commerce at Victoria University, Emma took papers in Deaf Studies to revisit her interest in sign language and help understand the intrinsic workings of the Deaf community.

“The papers I studied also dealt with Deaf culture because there is a distinct culture. Understanding this has helped me when dealing with Deaf clients.’’

Since studying NZSL at university Emma has continued to refresh her skills by attending a term of night classes most years and attending biannual weekend-long “silent camps”. She also now attends NZSL playgroups with her young son.

This article was first published in LawTalk 826, 30 August 2013, page 6.

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