General characteristics of business french and its definition

The concern of this article is to arrive at a workable definition of Business French. However, instead of giving a straight answer to the question “What does Business French mean?” we would prefer to let it gradually emerge while working through this article. It would be reasonable to start with a simpler question – why Business French? It was quite possible for French language world to live without it for many years, why Business French became so important part of French language teaching? In this section we will try to find out which were the factors that led to the emergence of Business French and its subsequent development.

The first few years of the twenty-first century have witnessed two major examples of such change with the inauguration of the euro into general use on January 1, 2002, and the expansion of the European Union from 15 to 25 members on May 1, 2004. The rejection by the French electorate of the constitution of the European Union in May of 2005 notwithstanding, these events have had a profound and lasting impact on France’s relationship with its neighbours, which leads one to question if and how these phenomena will influence the teaching of business French as a discipline. One undeniable fact is that the recent events that are consequences of France’s membership in the European Union are just some of the many current factors that have rendered many existing pedagogical materials for business French to a certain extent obsolete, as the content within these texts has become increasingly out-dated. Similarly, the radical changes implemented in 2000 by the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie de Paris in terms of the exams administered by its Direction des Relations Internationales have had a considerable impact on the discipline of business French in two respects: first, on the methodologies in those business French classes for which the international exams have traditionally been utilized as a means of measuring student competency and/or as a means of student evaluation; and second, on those textbooks oriented primarily toward preparing students for these same exams. In fact, the textbooks are often used even by those instructors with little or no interest in the international exams.

These few examples amply demonstrate to what extent the instructor of business French must constantly be in search of new resources. Both external and internal changes, such as those in the business climate in France and the Francophone world, the unending growth of the World Wide Web as a source of materials, as well as the publication of new textbooks and resource aids require instructors to regularly reconsider how business French can and should be taught. There are some factors that are currently, and will in the future, have a significant impact on this field and the pedagogical materials associated with it. Many of these are, in fact, “internal,” in that they are related less to changes in France and French business practices, and more to developments in perceptions of the field of business French among its practitioners.

One of the fundamental issues that must be confronted deals with the very terminology commonly employed to delineate this field; consequently, one might begin by posing the question: “What’s in a name”. This is a field traditionally called “business French.” A glance at the titles of the textbooks that have been on the market since the early history of this discipline reveals that the words business or affaires have usually been included in their titles: “Le nouveau français des affaires”, “Parlons affaires”, “Affaires à suivre”, “Le français des affaires par la video”, “Faire des affaires en français”, etc., to cite just a few of the best-known examples. Most other textbooks, if they have not featured in their titles either of these two words, have alternately featured the words commercial, as in Mauger and Charon’s “Le français commercial”, or enterprise, as in Danilo and Tauzin’s “Le français de l’entreprise”.

This nomenclature is equally evident in the pedagogical volumes published between 1995 and 2003 by the American Association of Teachers of French’s commission on French for Business and Economic Purposes (whose name alone is significant). These volumes, the only ones of their kind devoted to the discipline during this period, all include business in their titles: “Issues and Methods in French for Business and Economic Purposes”, “Making Business French Work”, and “Educating for International Expertise: Perspectives on Cross-Cultural Competence” and “French for Business”.

Finally, the two regularly published journals devoted to “business languages” also reflect the trend: “The Journal of Language for International Business” and “Global Business Languages”. It is important to mention these examples not to restate the obvious, but to contextualize them within an apparent shift, on the other side of the Atlantic, in terms of the categorization of this field that may, or may not, have an impact on how the discipline is taught in the future. This subtle development may be an indication of a change in attitude in

France toward the field of languages for the professions, one that may have some influence on what French professors do in our own classrooms.

To provide a more concrete example of the use of the term “French for Specific purposes” to refer to the sub discipline in question, one may consider that of the manual published in 2004 by Hachette, authored by JeanMarc Mangiante and Chantal Parpette, with the title “Le françaissurobjectifspécifique: De l’analyse des besoins à l’élaboration d’un cours”. (“French for a Specific Purpose: From Needs Analysis to Designing a Course”) The authors themselves make the distinction in their opening chapter between “le françaissurobjectifspécifique” and “le français de spécialité” (never mentioning the specific situation of “le français des affaires” in their introduction). They state: “Le terme français de spécialité a été historiquement le premier à désigner des méthodes destinées à des publics spécifiques étudiant le français dans une perspective professionnelle ou universitaire. Le terme français sur objectif spécifique, en revanche, a l’avantage de couvrir toutes les situations, que celles-ci soient ancrées ou non dans une spécialité”. (The term “français de spécialité” was historically the first to denote the methods intended for specific audiences studying French in a professional or university setting. The term “françaissurobjectifspécifique,” on the other hand, has the advantage of covering all situations, anchored or not in a discipline.).

The obvious advantage of the latter term is that it does not suggest a focus on one particular domain (the authors themselves mention medicine, law, agriculture, tourism, banking, and, finally, business). Yet this term is in itself vague and perhaps self-contradictory, seemingly including everything, yet implying specificity at the same time, complicated by the fact that the term “objectifspécifique,” at least in this text, appears in the singular.

Hervé de Fontenay, in a paper at the annual conference of the American Association of Teachers of French in Québec in July 2005, offered a slightly different perspective on this matter, as he presented a progression in the “appellations” concerning the field generally known as business French that provides a distinctly chronological development in the use of these terms. He traced the origins of the discipline as a named entity to the 1970s when the terms “françaisfonctionnel” and “français commercial” were first used. Toward the end of the 1970s, “le français des affaires” was coined, to be followed by “français de spécialité” (whose name, de Fontenay suggests, derives from the English “language for specific purposes”). This new term was accompanied by a change in approach away from a focus on the French economy and correspondence skills to a more functional communicative approach. In de Fontenay’s timeline, “le français de spécialité” is followed by “lefrançais de spécialités,” in which language instruction becomes increasingly isolated and reduced to a professional service. The final term which de Fontenay lists is “les langue des professions,” indicative of a broader scope suggesting that courses in this field may address the needs of any student intending to utilize skills in the French language in any professional context.

Although de Fontenay’s reflections on this terminology, in the context of his study at least, seem to portray an evolution in what we will loosely call “business French,” one may nevertheless point out that all of these terms remain in current usage in speaking of this discipline. Indeed, there seems to be a tendency toward the interchangeability of terms, indicative of a lack of clearly defined parameters for any of the fields in question, if in fact they may be considered distinct subdisciplines.

One of the significant discoveries of this research was recognition of the fact that there is a considerable difference between the language we speak and write from one context to another. It became obvious that there are important differences for example between French for commerce and medicine. These ideas had an influence upon the development of English courses for specific groups of learners. The idea consisted in following: if language use varies from one situation to another, features of specific situation can be defined and then it can be used as a basis for developing a learners’ course.

The final reason which made the contribution to the development of Business French can be named is focus on the learner. This was expressed by emphasizing the central importance of the learners and their attitudes towards learning. Rather than simply focus on the method of language delivery, more attention was given to the ways in which learners acquire language and the differences in the ways language is acquired. Learners were seen to employ different learning strategies, use different skills, and enter with different learning schemata. Learners’ interests and needs influenced their motivation to learn and the effectiveness of the whole course. This gave a real support to the development of the courses where students’ interests and needs took the primary position. The main idea of this approach was the clear correlation between French language course and learners’ needs which resulted in improving learners’ motivation and making learning better and faster. Therefore, focus on the learners' needs became equally paramount as the methods employed to disseminate linguistic knowledge. To this day, the catchword in Business French is learner-centred or learning-centred.

During the first stage of its development Business French had fixed attention on the language at the sentence level whereas the second phase of the development started being focused on the level above the sentence. Business French became devoted to the new field of discourse or rhetorical analysis.

Allen and Widdowson (1974) expressed laconically the basic assumption of this stage of the development supposing that “the difficulties which students encounter arise not so much from a defective knowledge of the system of French, but from unfamiliarity with French use, and that consequently their needs cannot be met by a course which simply provides further practice in the composition of sentences, but only by one which develops a knowledge of how sentences are used in the performance of different communicative acts.”

As we can see during the second phase of development the attention was shifted from sentence grammar to understanding how to combine the sentences in order to produce meaning. This approach was aimed at identifying the organizational patterns in text and specifying the linguistic means which mark these patterns – basic elements which the syllabus of the Business French course consists of.

In this approach like within the first stage of development there was more or less implicit postulate that there is a great difference between specialist areas of use of the rhetorical patterns of text organization. The rhetorical structure of science texts and commercial texts were considered as different forms. The typical teaching materials which present the basis of discourse approach are aimed at teaching students to recognize textual patterns and discourse markers with the help of textdiagramming exercises.

The next stage which we should take into consideration does not differ considerably from the previous ones. The main goal is to set already existing knowledge on a more scientific basic by setting up procedures for relating language analysis more closely to learners’ reasons for learning. According to it the main purpose of the Business French course is giving students an opportunity to function adequately in the situation in which they need to use language they learn, i.e. target situation. So the designing of the Business French course should have the identification of the target situation as the first step and only then carrying out a strict analysis of the linguistic features of that situation. These identified features will constitute the syllabus of the Business French course. This process is so-called needs analysis; however, Hutchinson and Walters use another notion which describes this process more accurate – “target situation analysis”.

The stage of the target situation analysis marked a certain “coming of age” for Business French. Everything that had been done gradually and carefully before was now thoroughly systematized and learners’ needs took the most important place in the course design process.

During the fourth stage of Business French, in comparison with the first and the second one where all the analysis took place on the surface forms of the language (sentence level in register analysis or above as in discourse analysis), the attempt to look below the surface and consider thinking process which lie under the language use instead of language itself was made. In this movement the following works should be mentioned: Francois Grellet (1981), Christine Nuttall (1982) and Charles Alderson and Sandy Urquhart (1984).

The principle idea of this phase of development consists in the assumption that there are common reasoning and interpreting processes which give an opportunity to understand the meaning of the words with the help of discourse. The attention should be paid to the interpretive strategies which enable student to cope with the surface forms, for example to guess the meaning of the words from the context using visual layout to determine the type of text, utilizing cognates words which are similar in the target language and in the mother tongue. In this approach there is no need to be focused on specific subject registers because the underlying processes are not specific to any subject register.

Speaking about the origins of Business French we identified three main forces which we might characterized as new ideas about language and learning. However, too little attention is given to the last of these forces – learning. All the stages given above were fundamentally defected because they were focused on descriptions of language use. All the previous stages described what people do with the language. Of course it helps to set the objectives of the course but our concern is with language learning. It is impossible to learn a language just describing and exemplifying what people do with it. A real effective approach should take into consideration an understanding of the processes of language learning. It has led us to the fifth phase of Business French development – the learningcentred approach. Now we can return to the question which we posed at the beginning of this chapter – what is Business French. To answer this, Business French should be considered as an approach not as a product. Business French is not a particular kind of language or methodology, nor does it consist of a particular type of teaching material. It is an approach to language learning, which is based on learners’ needs. Business French is an approach to language teaching in which all decisions as to content and method are based on the learner’s reason for learning.

Dudley-Evans set out three absolute characteristics and five variable characteristics to clarify the meaning of the Business French, giving an extended definition of Business French in terms of 'absolute' and 'variable' characteristics . The absolute characteristics are that Business French consists of the Second language teaching which:

  • is defined to meet specific needs of the learners
  • makes use of underlying methodology and activities of the discipline it serves
  • is centered on the language appropriate to these activities in terms of grammar, lexis, register, study skills, discourse and genre.

The variable characteristics are that Business French

  • may be related to or designed for specific disciplines
  • may use, in specific teaching situations, a different methodology from that of General French
  • is likely to be designed for adult learners, either at a tertiary level institution or in a professional work situation. It could, however, be for learners at secondary school level
  • is generally designed for intermediate or advanced students.
  • courses assume some basic knowledge of the language systems. The definition which was proposed by Dudley-Evans was very similar to that of Stevens. Nevertheless, he has includes more variable characteristics and has improved it by removing the absolute characteristic that Business French is "in contrast with ‘General French’". It is very useful to divide Business French in variable and absolute characteristics because it helps to resolve arguments about what is and is not Business French.

The next definition is given by Robinson who insists on the importance of needs analysis while defining Business French. She marks out two key defining criteria and a number of characteristics for her definition of Business French. Her key criteria are that Business French is normally goal-directedand that a needs analysis corresponds to the foundation of the Business French courses. A needs analysis is considered as a process aimed at specification of that what students have to do through the medium of French. As for characteristics that she presented they are the following: Business French courses are generally have a limited time periodduring which it is necessary to achieve the definite goals, and are aimed at teaching adults in homogeneous classes regarding the work or specialist studies in which students are involved.

In spite of the fact that all the definitions presented above have relevance, however, each of them has its own imperfection, either in the definition or in the features that it describes. So Business French related in content (that is in its themes and topics) to particular disciplines, occupations and activities. This characteristic misleads the teachers who held the idea that it is necessary to relate directly to the subject content for Business French. As for Robinson’s definition the same confusion can have the right to exist. The author marks homogeneous classes as one of the features which characterize Business French. The important fact is that much Business French work is based on the equal importance of language and skills that belong to all academic disciplines. It is not obligatory for Business French teaching to correlate totally with content but it should be intended for the reflection of the underlying concepts and activities of the broad discipline.

A methodology or the nature of interaction between the Business French teacher and the learners which is used within Business French courses and linked to a particular profession or discipline is rather different from that used in General Purpose French teaching. Interactions in a General Purpose French and in more general Business French classes may be similar. In Business French classes which are more specific a teacher starts playing a role of consultant enjoying mutual exchange of knowledge with the learners who have their own experience in the subject matter.

Hervé de Fontenay has summed up all the previous definitions and gave his own one which we have chosen as the most clear and comprehensive definition of Business French.

He also used absolute and variable characteristics.

Absolute characteristics:

  • Business French is designed to meet specific needs of the learner;
  • Business French makes use of the underlying methodology and activities of the disciplines it serves;
  • Business French is centred on the language (grammar, lexis, and register), skills, discourse and genres appropriate to these activities.

Variable characteristics:

  • Business French may use, in specific teaching situations, a different methodology from that of general French;
  • Business French is likely to be designed for adult learners, either at a tertiary level institution or in a professional work situation. It could, however, be used for learners at secondary school level;
  • Business French is generally designed for intermediate or advanced students. Most Business French courses assume basic knowledge of the language system, but it can be used with beginners.

Setting up a Business French course has its clear advantages. These advantages of Business French were expressed by Stevens through the following points:

  • being focused on the learner’s need, it wastes no time;
  • it is relevant to the learner;
  • it is successful in imparting learning;
  • it is more cost-effective than ‘General French’.

These claims speak about the fact that Business French teaching is more motivating for learners than General French. The focused nature of the teaching, its relevance and costeffectiveness ensure that its aims are widely accepted by learners. However, opinions about the specific work vary. Many students need a piece of advice or particular skills which will help them with their specific course. Thus, the collaboration of the language teacher with the subject lecturer will have a positive influence upon international students’ motivation on postgraduate courses.

So we can conclude that motivation in Business French has a profound effect on the question of how specific the course is. In the situation when learners have high motivation more subject specific work can be undertaken; low motivation results in concentrating on less specific work. The motivation of the specialists from different professional areas will be decreased if the Business French course does not address their difficulties with specific tasks. Another example can be given when students study the language because they have to and it is obligatory for them because of their timetable or their company is interested their employees have high French level proficiency and that’s why sent them to Business French courses to learn language, but the learners have no specific purposes for learning. Such group of students can be demotivated by more specific work and may be more motivated by Business French work that falls more towards to the courses based on common-core language and skills not related to specific disciplines or professions.



  1. Thompson, William J. Issues and Trends in the Teaching of Business French for the Twenty-First Century. New Initiatives, Vol.10, 2010
  2. Mangiante, Jean-Marc, and Chantal Parpette. Le français sur objectif spécifique: de l’analyse des besoins à l’élaboration d’un cours. Paris Hachette, 2004.
  3. Fontenay, Hervé de. Regards sur le français des affaires: Stratégies de développement, d’intégration et de progrès. Paper presented at session of AATF Annual Convention, Québec, July 2005.
  4. Gatehouse Kristen. Key issues in Business French Curriculum Development. The Internet TESL Journal, Vol.7, No. 10, October 2001
Year: 2012
City: Oskemen
Category: Philology