Business English faux pas

One of the things which make learning English easier for French speakers, is the similarities between the two languages.

One of the things which make learning English more difficult for French speakers, is the similarities between the two languages.

These difficulties are the same for all French speakers of English, but they are perhaps most dangerous in business.

When I’m speaking French and can’t think of a suitable word, sometimes I re-phrase my sentence; sometimes I use an English word with a French accent and then ask if what I have said makes sense. If my friend says “Oui”, all is good and I carry on. However, I don’t really know if what I was thinking was the same as what I said, and I don’t know what my friend then understood.

It’s the danger of translation:
‘Actual’ does not mean ‘Actuel’
‘Sensible’ is not the same as ‘Sensible’
‘A Society’ is not at all the same sort of organization as ‘Une société’
‘Important’ is not used in the same way as ‘Important’; i.e. you can talk about an important job [not ‘an important work’], but you can’t say ‘an important salary’
One meaning of ‘Realise’ is ‘to achieve something’, but that use is antiquated; we rarely use it today, we only use another meaning; ‘to come to understand something’

These are a few examples of words that are frequently misused by my university students on a fourth year Business English course in Toulouse. They were not a particular problem for my university students on a similar Business English course, some years ago, when I taught at the College of Commerce and Economics of a university in the Middle East, because their native language did not have the same similarities with English as French does.

Perhaps even more dangerous for a French businessman using English is the ‘Going to’ Future Tense. If a businessman is thinking in French, and is thinking “Je vais faire …” they* might think it natural to say “I am going to do …”

It seems to be a natural translation, and I hear it often, but it’s not correct. We don’t use the English ‘going to tense’ in the same way as in French.

A student of mine is a buyer and seller for a major company, based in Toulouse. He works all over the world, using English, and his English is extremely good. However, on one occasion he was telling me what he had said in an important meeting he had had with an American company. I realised that he had used ‘going to’ wrongly, and that instead of making a suggestion, an idea that he had just had, it sounded like a plan that had already been decided, and which was perhaps not negotiable. I explained this to him; he was horrified.

Understanding that “Je vais faire …” is not the same as “I am going to do …” is not difficult, but changing your habit is difficult, because the translation seems so logical.

In the case of a business meeting, a mistake like this could make the difference between winning the contract and losing the business.

More and more of our clients at La Selve come to stay with us because they need to communicate in English in their business. We offer help with the ‘faux amis’ like actual/actuel, important/important, and the use of ‘going to’. We also provide an opportunity for a person to build their* self confidence; important for anybody using a foreign language, but essential for anybody using English as a foreign language in business.

*We often use ‘they’ if we don’t know if we are talking about a man or a woman, even if we know we are talking about one person.

Ted