Teaching the Skills of French Business Correspondence to American Undergraduates: Problems and Techniques

by Gerald Herman
Teaching the Skills of French Business Correspondence to American Undergraduates: Problems and Techniques
Gerald Herman
The French Review
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Teaching the Skills of French Business Correspondence to American Undergraduates: Problems and Techniques

by Gerald Herman

IT1s. COMMON KNOWLEDGE among language educators that most foreign language majors, even after four years of university study, do not possess the necessary skills to enable them to compose stylistically proper business letters in French. All too often, such a letter written by an American undergraduate to a foreign correspondent and patterned after an American model, will appear ludicrous, presumptuous, perhaps even seem impertinent to its recipient. The French epistolary style, unlike its English counterpart, is a highly structured mode of expression, and neither grammatical competence in the language nor a famil- iarity with American commercial correspondence are sufficient to help the student avoid the pitfalls associated with the writing of business letters in French.

The focus of interest on commercial foreign language in recent years, and the proliferation of such courses across American campuses, has given an impor- tance to the study of business correspondence that the latter did not possess previously. It has legitimized it, as it were, as a valid component of the foreign language curriculum.' However, as with grammar, phonetics, or other such subjects that possess elaborate rules or mechanics, a course concerned strictly with the acquisition of business correspondence skills runs the risk of becoming monotonous in a rather short time. Care must be taken to provide a stimulating context within which the student can learn and practice the skills of letter- writing. Specifically, letter-writing should be integrated into the study of the business world, made an intrinsic part thereof. This presentation will focus on some of the problems encountered in teaching American undergraduates how to write French business letters, as well as on techniques that can be utilized in the classroom to make the study of French commercial correspondence a meaningful, it not an enjoyable, experience.

The objective being to show students how to express themselves correctly in French business correspondence, it is imperative that classroom assignments consist almost entirely of letters. In order to make such assignments interesting, the letters should all deal with specific problems or issues relating to one or more areas of the business sphere. Since the acquisition of correspondence skills constitutes a "practical" learning experience, one that the student may be called


upon to utilize in real-life situations, it is the instructor's responsibility to determine which areas of the business sector are most likely to be of relevance to the students' potential needs. Some suggest themselves to the mind at once, e.g., Banking, Communications, Government, whereas others such as the Stock Market, Agriculture, Customs and Duty, are apt to be of less pragmatic value. It is quite conceivable, for instance, that the student may find himself or herself in a French-speaking environment, having to open a bank account, transfer funds, place an overseas collect telephone call, or contact a government agency to secure a visa or work permit. It is less likely that that same individual might be engaged in the acquisition of stocks and bonds, be involved in civil court litigation, or in the purchase of real estate. Whatever the situation, the oral and written experience acquired in a Commercial French class can prove to be most beneficial.

For each area of the business world to be considered, the student should be provided with a functional vocabulary, general as well as specialized (see Appendix Section). In the absence of adequate textbooks, vocabulary lists can be distributed in class, such vocabulary to be utilized by the student and incorporated into the correspondence. The letters that the student writes should all enact real-life situations, as they might occur were he or she to be living in a French-speaking country. Thus, there may be letters to a bank regarding a loan or an error in a monthly statement of account, inquiries about various options of insurance coverage, the placement of an order with a manufacturer, etc. (see Appendix Section). Variety and interest can be imparted to such assignments by having the student assume different roles, e.g. writing a letter to an institution then changing identity and perspective to reply to that same letter. To maintain the illusion of reality, as well as to develop a sense of discipline, each business letter should be accompanied by a properly addressed envelope, and where appropriate, the student should be encouraged to devise informative and attractive letterheads.

Fundamental to any epistolary assignment is an understanding of the pecu- liarities and mechanics of French business correspondence. An initial segment of the course should therefore be devoted to a detailed examination and discussion of the French business letter, with an emphasis on contrastive analysis of French and American epistolary models. It is here that the student learns that the salutation in a French letter is followed by a comma, and not a colon; that the French letter generally places the name of the addressee to the rlght side instead of the left;2 that months have an initial capital in the data of the letter, but nowhere else in the text, and so on. This learning will be reinforced, through repetition, in the numerous ensuing letter-writing assign- ments.

The principles of syllabification need to be discussed in this initial phase of the course, and always in a contrastive manner. The student should be informed that word division in French differs substantially from that in English, that it is dictated not exclusively by grammatical or phonetic considerations, but may on occasion reflect a concern for propriety or good taste. Hence, the instructor may point out, with an accent on humor, that the word divisions "idio/matique" or "con/tentn at the end of a line, would most definitely be proscribed in a French letter. It should be made clear too that the process of syllabification may be influenced by a concern for the impact on the reader of a given phrase, or for reasons of aesthetic^.^

A critical item of discussion in this preliminary stage of the course-as well as a perennial source of problems for undergraduates writing letters in French- is that of opening and closing salutations. Here, a reliance on English language models can be disastrous. It is in the closing formula particularly that one sometimes discerns that nuance of presumptuousness or impertinence men- tioned earlier. This is not to say that the American letter writer should be accused of innate rudeness or insensitivity in his manner of expression. At the root of the problem lie some fundamental cultural differences between French and American English, and these must thoroughly be pointed out to the student before the latter proceeds to write letters in French. The contrast between the conciseness of expression characteristic of American parlance, and its generally more elaborate or flowery counterpart in French, between American familiarity and Gallic traditionalism, are clearly brought to light in the epistolary style. The English-speaking writer will find it quite appropriate to use the formula "Sin- cerely yours" in a letter addressed to a high dignitary, an elderly lady, or an anonymous insurance agent, as it is perfectly applicable to all social levels and age groups. The French writer, by contrast, must take into consideration the social position of his correspondent, vis-a-vis his own, the latter's age, sex, as well as the degree of familiarity or intimacy that exists between the two parties. Depending upon such factors, a variety of nuances can be introduced into the closing f~rmula.~ The same holds true for the opening salutation. English contents itself with such all-inclusive formulas as "Dear Sir" and "Dear Madam," in which the term "dear" has lost all concrete significance. French, on the other hand, distinguishes between "Monsieur" and "Cher Monsieur" to denote differ- ences in rank and familiarity, not that any greater degree of sincerity of feeling necessarily prevail^.^

Whether or not the French writer feels any particular degree of respect toward, or humility before, the duchess, the priest, the government official, or the dowager with whom he is corresponding is of little consequence. His personal feelings may be as sterile as if he were writing a "Dear Sir/Madam" letter, but it is socially incumbent upon him to employ a set formula to denote respect or humility. It is a part of his cultural heritage, one may say. Yet, within that rigid framework of expression, there is room for personal nuances, shades of feeling that can be conveyed, adjectives or adverbs that can be substituted for others, to let the correspondent know that some degree of thought has entered into the closing of the letter. All of this can seem quite foreign, difficult to comprehend, for an American student, accustomed to satisfying all needs and expectations, that of writer as well as of correspondent, with a single, genderless, meaningless, and all-encompassing formula such as "Sincerely yours."

Much of the initial phase of the course should thus be devoted to studying and differentiating between the numerous opening and closing formulas in French. Lists of salutations, covering a multitude of real-life occurrences, may be distributed in class for practice and use in assignments. For in-class work, students may be asked to compose appropriate opening and closing salutations for a letter to a prelate, a countess, a university dean, etc., or for letters of congratulations or condolence. It may also prove useful to provide the student with lists of standard phrases to initiate a letter or bring the latter to a close (see Appendix Section).

The excessive politeness-or hypocritical modesty, if one prefers-that is an inherent attribute of the French business letter is an often difficult concept for the American student to accept, accustomed as he or she is to a more direct manner of expression. The use of conditional verb forms to impart a certain "softness" to the letter is an illustration. There is a strong inclination among undergraduates to utilize "je veux" in correspondence when requesting a service or a reply, and they must be shown that "je voudrais" can achieve the same desired result, without conveying an image of rudeness, even though, paradox- ically, English makes similar usage of the conditional. There is likewise a strong tendency among students to abuse the imperative in their correspondence (e.g., Envoyez-moi/Ecrivez-moi/Donnez-nous,etc.), and here too it may be useful to show how a "polite" imperative such as "Veuillez" can make a substantial difference in the image of himself or herself that the writer imparts to the correspondent. Sometimes it is difficult for the student to sense the nuance of difference that a certain epistolary formula creates when employed in a letter, particularly when there is no direct counterpart in English, or when the English counterpart sounds perfectly adequate. The American writer will have no hesitation, for example, to begin a letter with the phrase "I am writing to you . . .," and indeed there is nothing fundamentally objectionable to this usage. But in French "je vous kcris" can be rendered infinitely more elegant and courteous if prefaced, e.g., "je me permets de vous kcrire . . .." To the American student, the French formula may sound rather affected if translated into his or her own idiom. What can most effectively be impressed on the mind of the undergrad- uate student, with these and other contrastive stylistic examples, is the fact that at times there is no direct correspondence between English and French modes of expression, and that one of the most serious errors that one can commit is to attempt to translate literally. Whether in a standard grammar or a commercial French class, the student must simply learn to think idiomatically, to leave English behind and attempt to put himself or herself as much as possible into a French frame of reference-and that, of course, takes practice as well as time.

Having been exposed, in the introductory phase of the course, to the char- acteristics of the French business letter, the student may now begin to apply this learning and compose actual letters, relating to hypothetical business situations. It should be noted that continuity in assignments, i.e., a prolonged epistolary dialogue between the writer and a business correspondent, can impart a greater sense of cohesion to classwork than individual, unrelated letters, though this need not necessarily be the prescribed format. Let us assume, for example, that Banking is the area under consideration and look at one of many possible assignment scenarios.

The student writes to a bank in France, indicating an interest in the opening of an account and requesting information about the various available services. This letter, as all subsequent ones, should be typewritten and accompanied by a properly addressed envelope. Next, the student changes roles and becomes a bank official, eager to respond and to praise the bank's merits to the potential client. This letter should be typed on letterhead paper, reflecting the student's creative imagination and bearing all of the pertinent information usually found in French commercial "en-tctes." A publicity brochure may also be prepared, containing information about the various types of accounts and services avail- able to the customer. Next, the student may write to the same bank to request a loan. This letter should be quite detailed, indicating the purpose of the desired loan and providing all necessary personal and business references. This is followed by a loan officer's reply, explaining the various options available to the applicant and inviting the latter to come to the bank to fill out the required documents. In another epistolary exchange, the student may write to the bank regarding a problem in his or her monthly statement of account, e.g., an overdraft situation, an inaccurate entry, and requesting clarification. This will in turn engender a reply by the bank, furnishing detailed information to satisfy the customer's query. Many other banking problems or situations may provide a basis for an exchange of correspondence, such as the rental of a safe-deposit box, the transfer of funds from account to account or from overseas, a request for assistance in the investment of funds, and so on. There is no limit to the variety that assignments of this type may take. All that is required is that they be commensurate with the level of competence and general interests of the class.

In conclusion, by stimulating the student's imagination, via the numerous scenarios and related assignments, the acquisition of French business corre- spondence skills becomes an almost unconscious process. The various epistolary formulas and rules are not visualized by the student as an end in themselves, as a monotonous discipline to be mastered, but rather as a practical tool or learning experience that will permit him or her to engage in interesting and challenging role playing situations. Furthermore, in the back of the student's mind, there is the awareness that such role playing is a reflection of reality, that the classroom experience may well be called upon to serve a practical function in future real-life situations. Indeed, it would make eminent pedagogical sense if a letter-writing module were included in the average secondary-school foreign language curriculum, wherein students might engage in fictitious correspond- ence with a French university or government agency, perhaps to request information or services, all of which would help to better prepare them for the college experience.


Sample Course Syllabus-Commercial French Course (emphasis on Correspondence Skills)-based on a ten-week quarter, and a total of thirty class hours.

Weeks 1 and 2-Distribution of a vocabulary list (terms relative to correspondence) General comparison of American and French letters: format, mechanics, syllabification, etc. Study of opening and closing formulae in the French letter In-class and at-home exercises in translation of English letters into French.

Weeks 3 and 4-Banking Distribution of vocabulary lists of banking terms-In-class discussion of the vocabulary and use in oral practice-Examination of actual French letters relating to Banking-Examination of banking documents (deposit/ withdrawal slips; money orders; drafts; foreign currency exchange re- ceipts; etc.). Preparation of letters relating to Banking (see text of article). Examination on Banking Vocabulary

Weeks 5, 6, and 7-Communications Distribution of separate vocabulary lists pertaining to telephone and postal communication-In-class discussion of vocabulary terms-Inclass oral and written practice involving new vocabulary-Letter-writing assignments (all letters written to any individual or agency necessitate a corresponding reply):

Letter re opening of a postal account-request for a postal transfer of funds-inquiry to the philatelic services-inquiry regarding the in- stallation of telephone service-query about a telephone billing er- ror-request for various postal information, etc. Examination on Communications Vocabulary

Weeks 8, 9, and 10-Marketing and Small Business Distribution of vocabulary lists of commerce and marketing terms-ln- class discussion of vocabulary and oral and written practice-letter- writing assignments revolving around the development, marketing, and sales of a product:

Letter to an authority, expert, etc., regarding a new idea for a product- Letter to a bank for a business loan-Letter to a real-estate agency about lease of property-Letter to a publicity agency regarding a campaign for the new product-Preparation of a publicity ad-Letter to potential new distributors of the product-Inquiry regarding patent or copyright-Placement of an order and reply, with invoices, etc. Examination on Marketing Vocabulary


Selected Sample Vocabulary for Banking (Terms to be discussed in class, used in oral practice, and incorporated as needed into the correspondence)

Ouvrir, fermer un compte-&re titulaire d'un compte-un compte courant, commercial, d'epargne-un carnet de ch6ques-le talon, la souche d'un ch6que-toucher, encaisser un chPque-endosser un chPque-faire un depbt, un retrait-faire virer une somme- effectuer un virement-verser une somme-une banque de dep6t-une caisse d'e- pargne-itre en presence d'un dicouvert-un pr6t sur decouvert-enregistrer une transaction-un prct-un emprunt-un prit i court, moyen, long terme-accorder le credit-contracter un emprunt-un debit-un solde crediteur, debiteur-un relev6 de compte-payer en espices, au comptant-le numiraire, les espices-les devises itran- gires-l'achat, la vente des devises-payer par acomptes, en ichiances, ichelonner les riglements-un prilivement sur un compte-une enqukte de solvabiliti-un compte joint-un dip6t a vue, iterme-une date d'ichkance-un compte a prkavis-les intir6ts de retard-un ch&que post-dati-un ch6que au porteur-un ch6que barre-l'escompte-le taux d'intirkt, d'escompte-une caution, un nantissement, les hypothiques-un chique de voyage-une traite bancaire-un billet a ordre-une creanceun compartiment de coffre-fort-etc.

Selected Sample Phrases to lnitiate or Close a Letter

Nous avons bien recu votre lettre du . . . nous confirmant . . 
Nous accusons bonne riception de votre lettre du. . . 
En riponse a votre lettre du. . . 
Faisant suite i votre commande du. . . 
Je prends bonne note du disir exprimi par votre lettre du. . . 
J'ai le plaisir de vous informer par la prisente que. . . 
Nous prenons la liberti de vous faire savoir que. . . 
En reponse a votre annonce parue dans. . . 
Je vous accuse reception de votre lettre du. . . 
J'ai l'honneur de vous informer que. . . 
Dans l'attente de votre riponse, veuillez agrier. . . 
Avec nos remerciements anticipis, veuillez. . . 
Dans l'attente du plaisir de vous lire. . . 
Vous remerciant d'avance de tous vos soins. . . 
Dans l'espoir d'une riponse positive, nous. . . 
Vous assurant de notre entiire discrition, nous. . . 


For illustration, here are the texts of several letters written by my students in the last two years. Names and/or addresses of writer and correspondent have been left out.

Cher Monsieur, Nous accusons bonne riception de votre commande du 5 courant et nous vous remercions de l'intirkt que vous portez i notre produit.

Veuillez trouver, ci-inclus, la facture. Suivant le dhsir que vous nous avez exprimi dans votre lettre, cinq boites vous seront envoyees par voie de surface i la fin de la semaine. Nous vous serions reconnaissants de bien vouloir nous faire parvenir en compliment la somme de 200 FF (frais de port et d'assurance).

Nous espirons que notre service vous donnera entiire satisfaction. Toutefois, s'il vous arrivait de constater une quelconque anomalie dans la riception de nos produits, ne manquez pas de nous en aviser aussit6t.

Avec l'espoir que vous apprecierez nos qualitks et nos prix, nous vous prions de croire, Cher Monsieur, i l'expression de nos sentiments divouis et les meilleurs.

Monsieur, Nous vous accusons reception de votre chique bancaire de 2.000 FF., inclus dans votre lettre du 14 ct. Nous vous en remercions. -Toutefois, nous nous trouvons dans la nicessite de diffirer l'ouverture de votre compte par l'absence de renseignements plus complets a votre sujet. Nous vous renvoyons donc

votre ch6que dans l'espoir que vous pourrez vous presenter i une de nos succursales, lors de votre amvee en France.

Nous prenons la liberte de vous fournir des renseignements sur quelques-uns de nos services qui pourraient vous itre utiles. Nous sommes en mesure de fournir des cartes de credit i nos clients. Nous avons un service de coffrets de sdreti. disponible i tous nos clients. Nous avons egalement un bureau de change pour accompagner toutes les transactions de devises etrang6res.

Esperant que vous aurez l'occasion de vous en servir, nous vous prions d'agreer, Monsieur, l'expression de nos sentiments devoues et les meilleurs.


Je vous remercie de votre lettre du 14 octobre. J'apprecie beaucoup la confiance que vous placez dans la BNP et voudrais essayer de repondre a vos questions concernant vos futurs investissements.

L'interit que nos comptes d'epargne offrent est modeste, comme vous devez le savoir. Mon conseil, pour vous assurer d'une liquidite immediate est de deposer une somme modeste. Pour le gros de vos fonds, je vous conseille d'investir le total dans des actions immobilii.res, recommandees par la BNP, et qui sont souvent des investissements ilong terme.

Je me tiens i votre enti6re disposition pour toute autre question que vous pourriez avoir. Veuillez agreer, Monsieur, l'assurance de mes sentiments respectueux.


'This is reflected also in the fact that entire scholarly conferences are devoted nowadays to the subject of foreign languages in business, e.g., the annual Eastern Michigan University Conference on Languages for Business and the Professions, currently in its sixth year. Publications in the field of Commercial Foreign Language have also increased notably in recent years. Here are just a few titles for French, the variety of titles being a reflection of the growing interest in the subject: French for Careers; Le Parfait Secritaire; French for Business and Finance; Export Marketing French; Le Francais de l'hifellerie et du tourlsrne; La Correspondance pratique; Harrap's FrenchlEnglish Business Dictionary; Le Frangais de la banque; Business Case Studies in French.

This usage is changing, however, influenced by American models, as it is not uncommon to find the 'vedette", or name and address of the recipient, on the left side in a French business letter.

Here is one fanciful and rather extreme, but self-explanatory, example of how thoughtless word division in a letter can destroy the desired impact upon the reader: 'Nous avons l'honneur de vous informer que nous venons de trouver un nom qui convient parfaitement i notre nouveau parfum. Nous appellerons celui-ci Pu//deur . . .". In an instance such as this, it would clearly have been most advantageous not to divide the word, at the cost of an imperfect margin.

'Despite their seeming rigdity, closing formulas in French letters allow flexibility for a variety of situations (cf. S. Oudot, Guide to Correspondence in French, Lincolnwood,IL: Passport Books [I9851 10: 'Les formules pour commencer et pour terminer une lettre personnelle varient selon la personne i qui on icrit et le degri d'intimiti entre les correspondants"). Terms can be interchanged to reflect this rapport (cf. G. Vivien, Le Parfait Secritaire, Paris: Larousse [I9801 11: 'Lorsqu'on veut marquer une certaine dkfkrence, on dit non pas 'recevoir", mais 'agrier" ou 'accepter": on donne non pas ll"assurance", mais I1"expression" de ses sentiments"). The elaborateness or terseness of the formula, the choice of one term over another, etc., will thus reflect the writer's sentiments toward his correspondent, or the social or other dstinctions that exist between the two. Here are a few examples of closing formulas showing gradation of feeling:

1) To an esteemed client: 'Veuillez agrker, Monsieur, mes salutations les plus distinguies".

2) To a supplier: 'Veuillez agrier, Monsieur, mes salutations distingu6es".

3) To a bad client: 'Agreez, Monsieur, mes salutations".

(from M. Lentz, H. Watson, and S. McGuinn, Essex: French in the Office, Longman, 3rd. ed. [I9811 30).

As one descends from a high government official to a branch director to an assistant director to, finally, a mere employee, the closing formulas will decrease accordingly in formality, e.g. ' l'assurance de ma haute considerationlde ma consideration la plus distinguie/de ma consideration trcs &stingu&/de ma consideration distinguee" (from G.Vivien, Le Parfait Secrefaire 12).

When addressing a woman, a man will normally extend his 'hommages" to her in the closing salutation, or some modified form thereof, whereas she would express her 'respect" in writing to a man. The whole gamut of human relations can thus be covered through a choice of adjectives (e.g., divoues, respectueux, sinceres, etc.) and corresponding superlatives and modifiers. See also J. Poncer, Je sais bien ridiger le courrier, Paris: Retz (1983) 19-29; J. Dournon, La Correspondance prafique, Paris: Livre de Poche 97-104.

The confusion experienced by many American undergraduates in selecting an appropriate opening salutation, and the risks of relying upon English-language models, can be seen in the following contrastive examples:

Monsieur-A perfectly courteous opening Sir-A rather brusque begnning for a letter. formula, used when writing to someone un- Suggests that the tone of the letter will be cold, known, or whom one does not know well. The perhaps somewhat hostile. most commonly encountered usage

Cher Monsieur-Definitely more cordial than Dear Sir-A standard formula for a letter. Polite the preceding. The writer has known the corre- and formal. Does not necessarily imply that the spondent for a period of time. Amicable rela- correspondents are on cordial terms. tions exist

Cher Monsieur Duponf-Type of salutation Dear Mr. Smith-More cordial than the preced- that all manuals proscribe. Used, among other ing salutation. The correspondents may or may things, when writing to a subordinate, to stress not know one another, but a positive personal distinctions in rank or status. touch is introduced by the mention of the family


See also J. Dournon, La Correspondance pratique 88-96.

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