Basic Business French 1 :
Preliminary information

© 2015, Greg Lessard

About this course

This course is aimed at those people who already have a basic knowledge of written French and who want to be able to deal with business materials in French. It is not designed to teach you how to write or speak business French, but only to read and understand.

The course is divided into twelve modules:

Approach, course elements and access

This course uses an inductive approach. That means that you will be asked to explore a variety of materials and discover how they work. This involves mousing over objects, clicking, dragging and so on. These explorations will be supported by explanations. To help you ensure that you have understood what you have read, each module will include one or more quizzes to allow you to test your knowledge informally. Finally, each module will end with several reading passages related to what we will have seen in the module. You will not understand everything in these from the outset, but they will provide a window into real French texts. In all cases, translations into English are provided.

To help you recognize the nature of each block presented, they will be colour-coded as follows:

Some textual items are also colour coded:

These course materials are entirely open access. That means that anyone can access them. You may explore them as a guest, anonymously. No record is kept of your activities.

Some people want an academic credit for a course. If that is your case, a variant of this course is available from Continuing and Distance Studies at Queen's University in Canada. Its course code is FRST 125. To take it, you must register at Queen's as a student. If you successfully complete their version of the course, you will be given a credit on a Queen's transcript.

Why learn business French?

There is a commonly held view that English is sufficient to do business in both North America and around the world. While there is no doubt that English plays a central role nationally and internationally, the importance of French should not be neglected. Here are some examples:

Why not just use Google Translate?

Most people have used Google Translate from time to time. This raises the question: why learn a language when Google Translate is always available. To answer that question, let us begin by considering how Google Translate works. Here is what Google has to say:

What is Google Translate?
Google Translate is a free translation service that provides instant translations between dozens of different languages. It can translate words, sentences and web pages between any combination of our supported languages. With Google Translate, we hope to make information universally accessible and useful, regardless of the language in which it’s written.
How does it work?
When Google Translate generates a translation, it looks for patterns in hundreds of millions of documents to help decide on the best translation for you. By detecting patterns in documents that have already been translated by human translators, Google Translate can make intelligent guesses as to what an appropriate translation should be. This process of seeking patterns in large amounts of text is called "statistical machine translation". Since the translations are generated by machines, not all translation will be perfect. The more human-translated documents that Google Translate can analyse in a specific language, the better the translation quality will be. This is why translation accuracy will sometimes vary across languages. (

This sounds quite convincing, and in some, perhaps many instances of simple texts, Google Translate can perform a reasonable job. However, let us think a bit more about the approach being proposed. Google Translate is basically a (very) large bilingual dictionary. Like any dictionary, it has no inherent intelligence. It doesn't actually understand the text it is 'translating'. Rather, it is replacing one string by another.

Let us compare this with what we do when reading a text in a language we know. We begin by taking in the forms, but these are quickly forgotten. (Test this by closing your eyes NOW and repeating PRECISELY the words in the Google Translate quotation.) We use the forms mostly as a means to find the meaning of the text. But this meaning is not simply the sum of a set of strings. Rather, it is built up over a text and depends, among other things, on the context the text is written in, who it's written for, who has written it, and for what purpose.

All of these things mean that understanding a language is not an easy process and involves many dimensions. As a result, while Google Translate often works, it also sometimes gets things very wrong. Let us put this to the test.

Testing Google Translate

We have seen that meaning is crucial to good translation. To illustrate this, let's look at some examples produced using Google Translate. Consider first the following short passage about the stock market from the French newspaper Le Monde:

Après les turbulences de ces derniers jours, la spectaculaire remontée des cours à Shanghaï – avec 5,6 % de hausse de l’indice principal jeudi, et de 4,5 % aujourd’hui – n’a pas totalement dissipé les doutes sur la volatilité future des places boursières chinoises.

En faisant flamber de 150 % l’indice principal de Shanghaï entre juillet 2014 et le pic du 12 juin 2015, la dernière bulle chinoise a en tout cas révélé le manque de maturité du marché : certains analystes continuaient à encourager les épargnants à investir jusqu’à début juin...

Source: Le Monde

This was translated by Google Translate as:

After the turmoil of recent days, the spectacular rise in prices in Shanghai - with 5.6% rise in the main index Thursday and from 4.5% today - has not completely dispelled the doubts about the future volatility of Chinese stock markets.

By blaze 150% the main index of Shanghai between July 2014 and the peak of 12 June 2015, the last Chinese bubble in any case exposed the lack of maturity of the market: some analysts continued to encourage savers to invest up in early June...

Source: Google Translate, July 11, 2015

A comparison of the two texts shows that Google Translate has captured the essential gist: worries about the maturity and future of the Chinese stock markets. There are two problems though, one minor, one more important. Check these out by mousing over the passages in the English translation.

The minor problem is the second one: to has been replaced by in. The second problem is more important: in French une flambée des prix is a technical term which means a spectacular rise in prices. It cannot be translated by By blaze 150%.

Let us look at a second example, but this time we will start with the Google Translate text.

(Carleton) Almost all Gaspé lobster finish their season Friday, and 2015 will have allowed them to beat the records of catches and revenue established last year.

Source, Google Translate, July 11, 2015

This is hard to understand. How did lobster finish their season? Now let us look at the original in French. Hover your mouse over the passage in green to see what the French really means:

(Carleton) Presque tous les homardiers gaspésiens terminent leur saison vendredi, et l'année 2015 leur aura permis de battre les records de prises et de revenus établis l'an passé.

Source: La Presse

We can see that Google Translate is capable of capturing the gist of a text, but sometimes goes off the rails, sometimes badly. In other words, it provides a basic tool that can function at a superficial level. But it is a dangerous tool if one wants to understand clearly a text of any complexity.

You are now faced with a choice. You can use the easy but dangerous tool, or you can invest your time in learning how to read a French text by your own resources. If you choose the latter option, read on...

Parts of speech

When working with texts, it is very useful to have at hand the terminology required to name the elements we are manipulating. One of the most basic elements of terminology is the part of speech. We can divide the words of most languages into some basic parts of speech. Fortunately, English and French share their parts of speech, as the following table illustrates:

Part of speech Function Examples in English Examples in French
Noun Designate a physical or mental entity wall, destruction, liberty mur, destruction, liberté
Verb Designate an event walk, decide, be marcher, décider, être
Adjective Designate a quality soft, old, former doux, vieux, ancien
Adverb Designate a location in space or time, a relation, degree or manner here, often, very ici, souvent, très
Determiner Specify the status of a noun a, the, my, three un/une, mon/ma/mes, trois
Pronoun Replace a noun phrase I, you, it, that je, vous, il/elle, cela
Preposition Designate a relation for a noun phrase after, upon, with après, sur, avec

Finding parts of speech

Identifying parts of speech is crucial to manipulating texts. This exercise will help you explore the different parts of speech. To begin, choose a part of speech to search for:

If you click on a member of the class you have selected, it will turn green. If you choose another part of speech by mistake, it will turn red.

The threat is most noticeable at bank branches. Once the strongest connection with customers, branches are now trying to find their way in a world where most of us bank online. Yet banks are still investing in them: Old edifices that appear hopelessly out-of-touch with our digital world are slowly being replaced by revamped formats that are borrowing concepts from Apple's retail stores.

Source: Globe and Mail


Although we are only at the beginning of the course, there are already several things you already know:

Let us explore these three areas in more detail.

Intelligent guessing

When you are reading a newspaper, one of the characteristics to keep in mind is that the basic information in an article can usually be found in the first paragraph. This can save you a lot of reading, just as can chapter headings, tables of contents and similar condensations. In addition, because texts written in French often talk about events also written about in English, your knowledge of current events, including people, institutions, situations and such, can help to fill in the blanks.

To illustrate this, consider the three following paragraphs, all of them drawn from La Presse:

Le vice-président de la banque centrale américaine, Stanley Fischer, a averti samedi que la Fed n'attendrait pas que l'inflation revienne vers son objectif de 2% avant de relever les taux.

Source: La Presse, August 28, 2015

La Bourse de New York a terminé à l'équilibre au terme d'une séance hésitante vendredi, les investisseurs semblant faire une pause au dernier jour d'une folle semaine marquée par d'énormes mouvements de balancier: le Dow Jones a cédé 0,07% et le Nasdaq a gagné 0,32%.

Source: La Presse, August 28, 2015

Les six plus grandes banques au Canada ont engrangé des profits de 9,2 milliards de dollars au troisième trimestre terminé le 31 juillet dernier, et ce, malgré les préoccupations entourant l'impact de la chute des prix du pétrole ainsi que du ralentissement économique.

Source: La Presse, August 28, 2015

What can you determine from even a cursory glance? At least this:

So your knowledge of English and of world events has already given you the gist of all three texts. Now let us see what other devices can give us more detailed knowledge. We will begin with cognates.


Hover over the members of the following list of French words to see their English equivalents.

Notice the similarities between the two languages. Do you see any patterns in how words vary between the two languages? (We will return to this below.)

Where do cognates come from?

The numerous cognates between English and French stem from a variety of factors. Thus:

Cognates between English and French, when they share the same or a similar meaning, are often referred to as bons amis or 'good friends'. Some French words, however, do not mean the same as their English counterparts having the same form. These are often referred to as faux amis (pronounce fo-za-mi) or false friends. For example, the French word pain means 'bread', not 'discomfort'. One of the important tasks to follow in this module is to begin to acquire a library of useful cognates.

Finding cognates

As a result of the commonalities between the two languages, if you speak English, you know more French words than you might think. Let us return to the three short paragraphs we saw above and look for cognates. Read the texts and then pause your mouse over potential cognates. If you are correct, a small bubble will appear with the English text inside it. Note that only the most obvious cognates are flagged. You may notice others.

Le vice-président de la banque centrale américaine, Stanley Fischer, a averti samedi que la Fed n'attendrait pas que l'inflation revienne vers son objectif de 2% avant de relever les taux.

Source: La Presse, August 28, 2015

La Bourse de New York a terminé à l'équilibre au terme d'une séance hésitante vendredi, les investisseurs semblant faire une pause au dernier jour d'une folle semaine marquée par d'énormes mouvements de balancier: le Dow Jones a cédé 0,07% et le Nasdaq a gagné 0,32%.

Source: La Presse, August 28, 2015

Les six plus grandes banques au Canada ont engrangé des profits de 9,2 milliards de dollars au troisième trimestre terminé le 31 juillet dernier, et ce, malgré les préoccupations entourant l'impact de la chute des prix du pétrole ainsi que du ralentissement économique.

Source: La Presse, August 28, 2015

Hover to see translation

The vice-president of the American central bank, Stanley Fischer, warned Friday that the Fed would not wait for inflation to return to its target of 2% before raising interest rates.

The New York Stock Exchange closed unchanged at the end of a hesitant trading session on Friday, with investors seeming to take a pause on the last day of a crazy week marked by enormous oscillations: the Dow Jones lost 0.7% and the Nasdaq gained 0.32%.

The six biggest Canadian banks had earnings of 9.2 billion dollars in the third quarter ending July 31st, despite concerns around the impact of the drop in oil prices and the economic slowdown.

Spelling relations between English and French

When looking at the previous paragraph, you may have noticed that a number of French words have endings which differ from their English counterparts, even though the base forms are quite similar. It is useful to keep these in mind when reading a French text. Two useful tricks will help you identify potential cognates even in the absence of a perfect correspondence between the two languages.

  1. Remove all vowels from the French word and see if the resulting skeleton is shared with an English word that would fit in the context you are looking at. For example, the French word marchandise shares the skeleton m*rch*nd*s* with the English word merchandise.
  2. Concentrate on the base part of the word when looking for similarities with English. For example, if you see the French word neutralité, take off the ending and look for similarities with English (in this case, neutrality).

There are also some regular relations between word beginnings and word endings in French and English. The following table illustrates some of these:

French form English form Examples
Verb ends in -er Verb ends in -ate éliminer : eliminate
Verb begins with dés- Verb begins with dis- désinfecter : disinfect
Verb begins with en- Verb has no en- enregistrer : register
French adjective in -e English adjective has no final -e communiste : communist
French adjective has no final -e English adjective has a final -e pur : pure
French adjective ends in -ain English adjective ends in -an africain : African
French adjective ends in -aire English adjective ends in -ary auxiliaire : auxiliary
French adjective ends in -aire English adjective ends in -ar polaire : polar
French adjective ends in -ieur English adjective ends in -ior antérieur : anterior
French adjective ends in -el English adjective ends in -al confidentiel : confidential
French adjective ends in -eux English adjective ends in -ous victorieux : victorious

Try to memorize these for future use and make a list of those you come across in your reading.

Finding cognates again

Finding cognates is an art that requires practice. This exercise will help you verify your ability to do that. Click on the words that you think are cognates below. If you are correct, the word will turn green. If you are mistaken, it will turn red. You can check your accuracy or see the translation by clicking on the buttons below the text.

Le constructeur automobile sud-coréen Hyundai Motor a annoncé mardi qu'il allait investir 80 700 milliards de wons (86 milliards de dollars) d'ici 2018 dans sa production à l'étranger, en particulier en Chine, et le développement de véhicules de nouvelle génération.

Arrivé au bout de ses capacités, Hyundai entend injecter 49 100 milliards de wons dans le développement de ses unités de production hors de la Corée du Sud et 31 600 milliards dans la recherche et le développement (R&D).

Le cinquième constructeur mondial, pénalisé par la faiblesse du yen et la cherté du won qui avantage ses concurrents japonais à l'exportation, porte ainsi à 20 200 milliards de wons par an ses dépenses en infrastructures et R&D contre 14 900 milliards en 2014.

Pas moins de 7000 chercheurs et ingénieurs vont être recrutés à ces fins.

«Cet investissement record doit nous permettre avant tout de nous assurer la maîtrise des technologies fondamentales dans la production de voitures écologiques, de voitures intelligentes et d'autres véhicules de nouvelle génération», a justifié le groupe dans un communiqué.

Plus de 11 000 milliards de wons doivent être consacrés au développement de voitures écologiques, à propulsion électrique ou hybride.

Source: La Presse

The mirror effect

Languages are made up of more than single words. These words are assembled into larger units called phrases, and even larger units like sentences and paragraphs. The grammar of phrases can vary from one language to another. This is what we find when we compare noun phrases (composed of nouns, their determiners and their modifiers) in French and English. To see the difference, consider the following table:

French form English form
la banque centrale américaine the American central bank
L'indice composite shanghaïen the Shanghai composite index
des statistiques économiques européennes European economic statistics
l'énergie renouvelable renewable energy

In each phrase, there is a word which represents the essential thing being talked about. Here, it is shown in bold in the first example. So, in the case of American central bank, the core element (or head of the phrase) is bank. The proof: we can say something like the bank in place of the whole phrase. Notice that in English, the head is the rightmost element.

In the case of French, the head of the phrase is typically the leftmost element, after the determiner. Thus, la banque centrale américaine has banque as its head.

To see this principle at work, compare the remainder of the English and French examples in the table above.

Exploring mirror effects

To practice your skill at finding and using the mirror effect, look at each of the following expressions in French and try to guess their meaning in English. To check your guess, mouse over the items and their equivalents will appear.

Reading passages

At the end of each module, you will find two or three short reading passages that you can use to check your understanding. We are just at the start of this course, so don't be discouraged if you don't understand everything immediately. The important thing is to apply the three techniques we have seen:

In each case, a translation is provided so you can check your understanding.

A news announcement (La Presse)

(Québec) Walmart a officiellement inauguré ce matin son nouveau Supercentre à Lebourgneuf, situé près des Galeries de la Capitale.

L'entreprise a augmenté la superficie de son bâtiment de 30 000 pieds carrés (maintenant 160 000 pi2) afin de permettre l'ajout d'une nouvelle section pour la vente d'aliments frais et pour bonifier l'offre actuelle de produits alimentaires secs, réfrigérés et congelés. Un investissement de plus de 2,5 millions $.


(Québec) Walmart has officially inaugurated this morning its new Supercentre at Lebourgneuf, situated near the Galéries de la Capitale. The enterprise increased the area of its building by 30,000 square feet (now 160,000 square feet) in order to add a new section for the sale of fresh food and to increase the current offerings of dry, refrigerated and frozen foods. An investment of more than $2.5 million.

A news story about the Uber taxi service in France (Le Monde)

Nous avons décidé de suspendre UberPop en France, dès 20 heures ce vendredi soir [3 juillet]. En premier lieu pour préserver la sécurité des chauffeurs Uber, ce qui a toujours été notre priorité. Ils ont été victimes d’actes de violence ces derniers jours. La seconde raison est que nous souhaitons nous situer dans un esprit d’apaisement, de dialogue avec les pouvoirs publics et montrer que l’on prend nos responsabilités.


We have decided to suspend UberPop in France, as of 8 p.m. this Friday evening [July 3]. First to preserve the security of Uber drivers, which has always been our priority. They have been victims of acts of violence in recent days. The second reason is that we hope to show a spirit of peacefulness, of dialogue with the public authorities and to show that we are being responsible.

Summing up

We have now reached the end of the preliminary chapter. At this point, you should:

  1. understand the range of materials we will be dealing with in what follows and how they will be presented
  2. be able to use the appropriate techniques to explore texts presented
  3. have an appreciation of why translating French to English is complex
  4. have a good grasp of parts of speech
  5. understand the role played by intelligent guessing in deciphering a text
  6. have grasped the importance of cognates in providing an initial sense of a text
  7. be able to apply the mirror effect principle to deduce the English equivalent of expressions in French.