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Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

I Can’t Speak Business in Any Language

Business Language/ © Blake Gumprecht

None of my languages are business compatible.

This morning I was sitting on a train from Paris CDG airport into Paris. I was singing a silly song in my head (“et les meufs et les keufs dans le RER“) and started thinking about cultural knowledge and blending in.

Listening to the chatter around me, I suddenly realised that as French as I sometimes like to think I can be, there is a massive part of French culture that I can not blend into at all: business.

I learned to speak French when I moved to Antibes, on the Côte d’Azur in Southern France. If you ask “a proper French” (meaning someone from Paris, according to people from Paris), those guys in the South are a bit odd, and they have a strong, weird and stupid accent. So I essentially started off on the wrong foot.

To make things worse, I lived in a house with two German guys and their French girlfriends. Those two girlfriends were only half French, one was from an Italian family, the other was French-Algerian. To make a long story short, I learned “street French.”

It’s impossible to impress someone in a business relationship with a thick southern accent and the ability to mimic gangster-style French, I learned.

Business French is full of terms and expressions that are not used outside of the business context, like in any language, really. Somehow, I just never really was in that world in my six years in France. I worked at a really international place where I mostly spoke with other expat PhD students. So no proper business French input there either. Then I changed to a start-up run by a Brit and an American, with an Irish assistant and a French developer who wanted to improve his English.

You get the picture.

Off to the U.K.

I next moved to the U.K. and in my new job immediately started to work mostly with French customers, funny enough. So all of a sudden my French improved quite a bit, but my contacts were technical and we were mostly discussing very specific functionality.

In the office we were again many expats and we spoke a mixture of English, French, Bad English and Bad French. At one point, my entire team was happily speaking French all day except for one poor English woman who didn’t understand the rest of us.

Brits are very sensitive to little cues in their language that allow them to judge whether socially you’re a peer or not. Even though I have good exposure to business English, I still feel left out because it might never actually be enough. Even I can clearly see the difference between how I speak in this context and how my counterparts do.

And in Germany?

But then again, I do feel that difference even when I speak with Germans in German, my mother tongue. I grew up in Germany and I studied there, but my first real job was in France. I have worked with a lot of Germans, but never actually in Germany.

There’s always this nagging fear that my German deteriorates because I pretty much only use it with my kids. Following my own advice, I should probably read more proper literature in German. That would help combat the loss of German and it would hopefully also spread to my children. As good as this plan is, I somehow cannot see it working for business German, English or French.

Would you want to read a lot of dull text full of bloated, buzz word-laden nonsensical phrases?

© 2012, Jan Petersen. All rights reserved.

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Jan, who is German, works mainly from home as a software engineer. His wife, who is Algerian, stays at home to look after their three girls aged 7, 4 and 1. They live in the U.K. and are raising their children multilingual in Arabic, French, German and English.

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1 Comment
  1. CommentsAnnabelle   |  Wednesday, 19 December 2012 at 1:14 pm

    I can so relate to this. I still struggle to talk about research (my job) in French even though it is made to be my native language.

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