"You speak Myanmar language very well." said the taxi-driver as I settled into the backseat and rolled down the window.
"Neh neh pyaw deh" (I speak a little), I responded, satisfied that I was able to haggle the fare down to where I knew it was supposed to be with the first taxi I had hailed.
"How long have you been in Myanmar?" the driver continued while checking out both me and the traffic through his rear view mirror.
"Ko la" (nine months).
"Where do you come from?"
"America nain-gan" (America [country particle]).
I'm used to this line of questioning. Even though there is no tip on the line, Yangon cabbies love to make small talk with their foreign customers, often in surprisingly fluent English. It may be the same stock questions, but their language skills are impressive. I say it is surprising because these guys can't afford the kind of private language school classes I teach. They're not university graduates nor workers at a multinational corporation.
When compared to a place like Bangkok, they don't even get that many foreigners in the back seat, but on the whole, the taxi drivers here speak much better English than back in Bangkok. I can't help but wonder how these working-class guys in one of the poorest nations in the world learned to speak so well.
This driver's English was especially good. Look back at the dialog. He used the adverb 'well' instead of saying good, something even a lot of native English speakers fail to do. He correctly chose the present perfect tense when asking about my length of stay. He structured a question in the present simple properly, and although you can't read it, his pronunciation was outstanding.
Maybe he was impressed that I used the nain-gan particle to indicate a nation as his only error was in telling me I speak Myanmar well because I don't. Not really. I know maybe 100 words and have a basic command of the simplest grammar. I do, however, speak a particular kind of the local language decently. I thought I'd explain it to him.
"Jennau Taxi-lo pyaw deh" (I speak taxi language), I told him.
He didn't understand what I was trying to say at first, and he asked me to repeat it. Twice. See, I've done a good job in trying to learn the subtleties of this tonal language for half a dozen or phrases that are needed when communicating in a taxi.
Given that all the taxis here are non-metered, knowing how to negotiate a price is first and foremost of the key elements of this particular specialized language. Giving directions is also important. When the taxi drivers hear me speaking their language well with these isolated phrases, they naturally assume I speak the rest of the language just as well.
Just because I know how to say "I'm going to _______" and "Will you take 2500 (Kyats)?" doesn't mean I can speak the language.
As he finally understood the concept of what I was trying to say, he barked "Me same!" excitedly. "I speak Taxi English!"
Note he mixed up his subject/object pronoun and left out the verb in the first sentence. He went on to explain that he was comfortable with English phrases like "Should I continue straight?" or "Turn left at the light", but once outside his comfort zone of cabbie English, his general English was, as he said, "so not good."
Time for a new course?
There are many types of English-for-specific-purposes that are well recognized and even taught formally all over the world. Aviation English; scientific English; engineering English; legal English, English for the hospitality or oil & gas industry - to name but a few. As for business English, I've moved past wearing the 'Scarlet K' at my school and enjoy teaching that specific purpose English on a regular basis.
Certainly, having some proficiency in English is an important skill for every taxi driver no matter what country he lives in. I think it's high time that Taxi English joins the ranks of these other Englishes and be recognized for it's unique lexicon and usage!
If I could find that same taxi-driver that I rode with this morning, I'd ask him to help me write a text book on the subject. I already have a title in mind: "Where Would You Like to Go, Sir? - English for the Taxi Professional."