My first week back at school has been a sensory overload. The reading, the writing, the having to constantly feign understanding while my teacher discusses traditional Chinese farming practices. All I gleaned from that lesson was how to say “sheep skin turban” in Chinese; trust me when I say you will never need to lean how say that.
My supply of Chinese friends who are willing to hear me prattle on about school (one of the few topics I can hold more than a two minute conversation about) is fairly limited. So how do I practice my spoken Chinese? In my effort to be a good student (hen nu li de xue sheng 很努的力学生) I’m on a mission to talk to every single taxi driver (chu zu che si ji 出租车司机) in this fair town. Taxi drivers are easy prey, they can’t tell you to shut-up and they have nowhere to hide from your horrible grammar.
Taxi drivers are my favorite Chinese teachers because most of the time they’re happy to talk to you about anything. Also, their most loved topics of conversation tend to fall into three simple categories familiar to all foreigners leaning Mandarin: food (fan 饭), China (zhong guo 中国), and what country you’re from (ni shi na li ren? 你是哪里人?). I’ve managed to turn talking to cab drivers into a fine art, and am constantly amazed by how much I understand (wo ting dong我听懂) now in comparison to my humble beginnings.
My ability to reach this semi-proficient(ish) level of conversational skill was made possible by one question: “Are you a Beijinger?” (ni shi Beijing ren ma? 你是北京人吗?) Cab drivers love talking about where they’re from and even if they talk about themselves for the whole trip, at least you’re honing your listening skills. The next time you get in a cab, force yourself to ask that one simple question and I guarantee it will change the way you view your Chinese language skills. Over time you will understand more and more, and be able to respond surprising quickly. Gone are the days of “I don’t understand” (wo ting bu dong 我听不懂).
15 minutes with an old Beijing cabbie is worth one hour with your Chinese tutor because there’s no backing down. The cabbie can’t speak English (bu hui shuo ying yu 不会说英语) so there’s no second language to fall back on when things get too tough. It’s just you and your Mandarin skills mano-a-mano.
My advice if you’re looking to impress: Add an extra “r” (er 儿) or two to end of your words. It always seems to cheer my cab drivers up no-end, and usually I’ll get an ego boosting “Your Beijing dialect isn’t bad” (ni shuo Beijing hua shuo de bu cuo 你说北京胡说的不错).
So go on, give it a try. Jia you! 加油！
Flickr photo by Stas Kulesh published under the Creative Commons licensed content.