Monday, May 24, 2010

The taxi driver who taught me everything

During my recent trip to China, I spent 40 minutes in a taxi to Guilin Airport, and I got an important perspective on language learning - both a kick up the butt and a gentle pat on the head. (No, that was me doing it to myself - not the taxi driver!)

The conversation started off well, and we spoke (in Mandarin) about language learning, working in different countries, the most interesting things I did in Guilin, and so on. I felt good, I understood what he was saying, and was able to communicate my thoughts to him. This lasted about 20 minutes.

Then the conversation moved on to traffic-related topics. We were still doing fine while talking about traffic jams, dangerous driving, accidents, injuries vs deaths, and so on. But it started to go wrong at the time when he was trying to say "driver's licence" - a word I did not know. Eventually he showed me his, I said the closest word I could think of (证书, zhèng​shū, certificate/credentials) to confirm.

He agreed, and we were on track again.

But not for long.

At this point I really wasn't following him anymore, and I spent a fair amount of time saying 'ting bu dong' ("I don't understand what you're saying"). My mind started to wonder, and I started thinking about what the various English words that might be relevant here ...

roadworks, tar, pedestrians (yup I know that one), diversions, petrol (know this one too), oil (again), accelerator, brakes, parking (ting che), headlamps (I can take a guess this one), toll gates & toll fees (words that probably end in 'men' and 'fei') ...

This reminded me that to truly become fluent in a language, there really are a lot of words you need to know - there are so many words I don't know, even about cars & traffic (which is just one topic out of millions). So many more.

For a while there I became disheartened. At that stage I started talking to the taxi driver again, and he was saying that one day he would want to learn English too. And I realised that whatever language you learn, you would have to learn all these words.

Sometimes I just find myself convinced that Mandarin is ridiculously difficult, and it would be so easy if I were learning another language. But of course that's not true. Ultimately, if you're learning a new language you have to learn lots of words, sayings, and sentence structures.

So stop complaining and just get on with it.

How committed are you to your studies? How many new words did you learn today? And in the last month?


  1. Hahaha, I feel this way everyday Greg. I'm glad somebody else understands :) Recently I was watching a Chinese drama and I wrote down at least 40 vocabulary words about Law alone since the characters were in court.

    It's very hard to learn a lot of different topics, but that's why you have to study a lot mixed with just talking to people. I've been watching drama and using a lot of sites to help my reading skills and learn, along with chatting with some friends :D

    GOOD reading material:
    MP3 Lessons:

    And remember that you can always use for other vocabulary and lessons. :)

    One thing I think is that you're definitely more brave than me, Greg. I have yet to hold a conversation with someone in Chinese fully without getting nervous or insecure. Lucky! I honestly think you're going to be fluent in 4 years, while I'll be fluent after a total of 6 or 7. I think that's because you surround yourself with the environment and have been to China. Good job Greg :)

    At the college I'm going to in September, they don't have non-beginner level Chinese courses BUT. No need to fret, because I can become a tutor (for a good pay!) there because of my experience. With that money I'll FINALLY be buying Heisig and signing up for ChinesePod :) They also have Study Abroad in China so I might go one of the years that I'm there :D

    I guess this post just ended up leading to a big update about what's going on with me! Anyway, glad to know you're fine, and don't worry about not knowing that topic. It hasn't been too long since you started, and you have the rest of your life ahead of you to learn about 出租车's. :)

    Take care!


  2. Nice kick in the pants! The title drew me in and a laowai talking with the taxi driver kept me reading since I can identify. It's all about context and useful language. Half those words you don't know are not useful, not HIGH frequency words, but annoying that you don't know them nonetheless. I think you had a great taxi driver though, not many have the patience and willingness to talk at length in Chinese with a foreigner. Anyway, Chinese is freaking hard but it's gotten to the point for me now that I just try to do something everyday!

  3. Hey Kara, good to hear from you.

    You mentioned a recent example where you wrote down 40 new words from the drama - how many of those will you actually remember in, say, 3 months time? Do you add them to flashcards? Or do you have them in a notebook that you keep coming back to for revision?

    Thanks also for the links - I like that reading one, wish I'd known about it before!

    Actually, I don't think it's about being brave to converse, I think it's the goal you set yourself. For example, my goal was not specifically to *have* a conversation, it was more to *begin* a conversation. Which means, even if I got lost after 2 sentences, I had already achieved my goal.

    Amusingly, I have also discovered that I can end the conversation whenever it gets difficult. Usually with taxi drivers and waiters/waitresses and hotel staff, if I say "ting bu dong" three times in a row, they usually just give up onme :-) So I don't have to worry about it getting out of control, because I can stop it any time I want.

    Give it a try.

    And good luck with the college - it's great you're so optimistic. It's going to be fantastic, I'm sure. Good luck!

  4. Magnus, I totally agree with your observation about high frequency words. I guess that's the difference between "talking" in Chinese (where you can limit yourself to talking about only the things you know the vacab for), and "communicating" in Chinese, where you need to know the vocab that the person is using to speak with you.

    Actually, I seem to have had good luck with taxi drivers in China. This is especially true when I compliment their accent ("easy to understand") or tell them how much I like their country or culture, that really seems to warm things up :-)

    PS. Am nearly finished reading your book. Absolutely loving it!

  5. my aunt is currently visiting us. She lived in China for 4 years and never learnt to speak the language. Her reason - she could get away without it. However, she makes a living from teaching english to chinese students in Scotland now. I would commend you to keep going. You've travelled an incredibly long way already, and like the frog in the bottom of the well, the blue sky seems far away. But... you're at least half way up the well's wall and a 20 minute conversation with a taxi driver proves that! Go go go

  6. Hey you - thanks for your thoughts! Being able to "get away with it" is a scary thought - because that means that they (not just your aunt, but I know plenty of people in this position) probably only hung out with the ex-pat community. They probably never got a real chance to connect with a local, at their level, and have totally missed out on such a relationship.

    But I will continue, even if you insist on comparing me to a frog!