The Visa Collector

A blog about travelling with a Filipino passport, and life overseas

Taipei taxi language laboratory

Posted by admin on June 15, 2010 at 12:31 am

Taipei taxis weren’t just a means of getting around. They were also an interesting way to work on my Mandarin.

All the foreigners I knew that managed to get over the hump between between language classes and actual conversation all told me the same thing: “Just do it”. I had to find as many opportunities to speak Mandarin as I could, and just try to be understood.

Being surrounded by Taiwanese in the office, you’d think practice would be easy. But I really wasn’t getting much practice at work. My vocabulary was so limited, my Taiwanese co-workers simply found it easier just to use English. So I had to find other ways.

Enter . . . the Taipei taxi.

Taxis were as ubiquitous as chopsticks. There never seemed to be a shortage of them, regardless of the time of day. Although the bus and rail systems were pretty good at getting people to key points of interest, some destinations just required the flexibilty of these bright yellow cars. Rarely did a week go by without a cab ride.

Most folks liked to ride in the rear seat. Right or wrong, my intuition told me that riding in front somehow humanized me to the driver, hopefully making him less inclined to drive me around in circles. This configuration also facilitated my “lessons”.

At the bare minimum, the taxi presented a very simple language test whose results were immediately available and easy to understand: “if I didn’t get to where I want to go, I failed”.

The basic taxi vocabulary was easy enough: “Hello“, “I want to go ____“, “intersection“, “at the corner“, “turn left“, “turn right“, “make a u-turn“, and “stop here“. In my early taxi rides always I brought written instructions to my apartment so that I could always find my way home. I also asked my friends to write down destinations on slips of paper that I could show the driver. With the destination out of the way I focused, and gained confidence with, the limited vocabulary mentioned earlier.

After watching how my friends gave instructions to drivers on a number of shared rides, I started giving instructions myself. Mandarin is all about the tones. Use the wrong tone and you end up saying something you didn’t intend (more about that in a future post). Some destinations were easy enough to pronounce. Other streets sounded dangerously like others, and were therefore vulnerable to butchery by unpracticed foreign tongues. Sometimes I got to where I needed to go, other times . . . lets just say it was an interesting way to discover new and interesting places.

The vast majority of taxi drivers I met were courteous and mindful of the fact that I was trying to learn their language. Upon detecting the awkwardness in my delivery, they would invariably ask (in Mandarin of course) “Where are you from?”. Small talk and polite probes would follow, until my vocabulary ran out and I said “sorry, I don’t understand, I know very little Chinese”. The probes would then end with polite smiles.

One day, I didn’t have to end the conversation prematurely. By then I had been engaged in a language exchange arrangement with a couple of Taiwanese friends. They were helping me with my Mandarin, and I was helping them with their English. Because of the latter, English was always a readily available safety net. That was not the case with taxi drivers, and this one was no exception.

The usual small talk ensued, and I was even able to ask a few questions myself. It wasn’t until the ride ended that I realized: “I had just completed my first Mandarin-only conversation!!!!” It was a fantastic realization comparable to riding a bike, unassisted, for the first time.

The fondness with which I recall that moment, is only matched by the regret in not having written down the time and day it happened. That milestone is lost to me forever. Hopefully with blogs like this, I won’t let moments like that pass me by again.

Filed under Slices of life, Taiwan
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