Whether you’re studying on an exchange program, on holiday, or just stepping out in your first job abroad, getting to grips with your target language will always be on your mind.
This mentality couldn’t be more important to learners of Mandarin, widely touted as one of the most difficult languages to learn in the world. Compared to languages such as English, German and French, Mandarin can at first sound like an unending chain of blurred sounds. Where does one word begin and end? Exactly how important are tones? What do the tones even sound like?
To add to the initial difficulty, there is also the added issue of practise. Particularly if you have just moved to China, or in fact any country that uses a language other than your own, gaining the confidence to strike up friendships can be a nerve-racking prospect. How do you organise regular meet-ups for language practise when even ordering a 包子 (steamed bun) makes your heart race with adrenaline?
It was only recently that I identified a language-practise technique that I’d been participating in almost every day. My secret? Taxis.
As anyone who has been to China knows, taxis can be incredibly cheap – sometimes only 20元 (roughly converted to £2) for a 20 minute journey compared to almost £7-£9 for a 10 minute journey in the UK. This means that among locals and expats alike, taxi journeys can almost become routine. When you couple this regular routine with many taxi driver’s appetite for polite conversation and small-talk, well hey now, you’ve got some language practise!
There are many advantages to trying out your language practise in a taxi. Firstly, for beginners, taxi drivers can often ask similar questions. The recurring questions I have noticed are:
Where are you from?
What do you do here?
How long have you been here for?
…and so on. This is an excellent opportunity to brush up on your listening skills and formulating your answers. Over time you can build your recognition of key words and phrases such as country, study, work and how long. As for your answers, although they may start off as silence, a confused shrug, later progressing to one-word utterances, each time is an opportunity to expand your answer, building on what you’ve learned, moving from “UK” to “I’m from the UK”.
Furthermore, beginner’s nervousness is often a hindrance, but one way to relax yourself is to remember that many taxi journeys are between 10 to 20 minutes. The driver in question may not even want to talk for that length of time, and to maintain road safety, probably won’t. Compared with hour-long language classes and tuition, this is merely a bitesize practise.
As for those who are beginning to advance their Mandarin ability, taxis can still be a valuable space for building on your skills. Often, I’ve found that the driver can lead the way in terms of conversation, and this is best to avoid irritating him/her with unwanted chatting. Topics we’ve covered in the past have included food, language-learning, difference between culture, travel, the HS2, the Queen, and the Second World War.
During these times I like to keep my phone close to me to check any emphasised words that I don’t understand. Some might see this as jarring and interrupting the flow, but in my experience, it merely confirms my understanding of our conversation. To ensure my driver knows that I have picked up the new word, I repeat it, and when I’ve checked the meaning, I will reply using the new word to really seal it into memory. If you really don’t want to check definitions in the middle of talking, you can always ask for an explanation of the word or remember to look it up later on.
In my experience, many taxi drivers in China are keen to find out about their passengers, and will be happy to hear you attempting Mandarin, even if it is just a little.Furthermore, I’m sure this advice could also be applied to other countries depending on the price of taxis and the national customs and cultures.
Aside from taxis, there are many other daily spaces that are invaluable for language practise. If you have any suggestions, let me know either in the comments below, or on my Twitter page!
VERY IMPORTANT POINTS TO REMEMBER:
- While chatting is good practice, ensure you aren’t distracting the driver and that you are allowing them to have full concentration on the road at all times. Refrain from talking if it is prohibited.
- Ensure you feel safe and comfortable. Report any unacceptable behaviour to the relevant authorities.
- Be polite and respectful. This is the driver’s place of work and they may not want to discuss certain topics or even speak at all. Common sense ought to tell you if they want to talk to you or not. I usually let the taxi driver ask the first question.
- Don’t attempt to chat to bus drivers as this is usually prohibited.