What I Learned About Languages from My French Taxi Driver

Recently, my family and I took a cruise of the Mediterranean. It was a pretty awesome experience, for sure, but trying to get around town whenever we got off the ship was a little stressful. Every town’s train system was a little different, and public transportation in general wasn’t as convenient as I had been led to believe.

Boats docked in Bandol, a beach town in southern France. (Own Work – Language Surfer)

In Toulon, France we were in a hurry to get back to the ship. We needed to catch a shuttle bus to another destination that we had already paid for and were having a hard time finding a taxi. After 45 minutes of waiting, we finally found one.

Neither my wife nor I spoke any French beyond “Bonjour” and “Merci.” Our driver, a local, spoke about two hundred words of English total. Yet out of all the taxi drivers we encountered on our 10-day trip, he was our favorite. In fact, I learned (or more accurately, relearned) a few things about foreign languages from him, such as…

People are usually communicating for a reason, not for the sake of communicating itself.

The driver’s English was limited, and if I were a jerk I’d say it was even poor. But I couldn’t care less about that. I was frustrated with the possibility of missing our shuttle bus and grateful that the guy was helping us out.

He knew enough English to help us, which was more than I could expect since I was, after all, a visitor in his country. I’d much rather have a guy with D- in English help me out than a guy with A+ English who was no help at all.

People you come across are never trying to gauge your language. They’re trying to achieve something, even if it’s something as simple as passing the time with small talk.

You can have a conversation on limited vocabulary and grammar.

The guy didn’t just drive. He asked us questions and talked about his family. Like I said, his English was definitely limited, and he didn’t understand a lot of our responses. At times, it was awkward. I tried to say “Montmartre” (don’t ask me why, because I don’t remember) and he thought I asked about his mom.

But I came away knowing that he was from the area, his dad was in the Army, and he had a brother. It was just idle chat, but I remember this guy and remember the experience positively because he had the guts to talk to us.

You can get by with intuition.

He didn’t understand a lot of what we were saying, but he could tell by our body language and what he did understand that we were in a hurry. He zipped through traffic and got us to our destination with plenty to spare.

I thanked him and left him a decent tip for his efforts, and as we were leaving, he spread his arms out wide and yelled, “Have a good time in France!”

Wrapping Up

The biggest takeaway from this experience is that your language doesn’t have to be perfect to help people out, make friends, and even make small talk. In fact, after about a month of smart studying you can be at a level where a foreign language is useful to you, even if you’re not fluent.

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  • vern777er

    Hi Ron, I came across your blog a few months ago and have been enjoying it. I decided that after years of promising myself I would learn a language this year would be the year. So I started learning Spanish at the beginning of the year with no background at all in the language. I notice in this article you say that after a month of studying a foreign language it can be useful to you but after 4 months I’m wondering about my progress. I was doing most of the things you suggest before I found your blog…. I’m on a 100 day run on duolingo, I am on italki, I love ‘Easy Spanish Reader’, I use the BBC site and I listen to quite a lot of Spanish. My reading is quite good (I read about the tennis every morning in Spanish) but I can’t speak much and I have trouble with listening. I pick out words and phrases but I can’t always get the meaning of what I’m listening to. Am I making normal progress or am I doing something wrong? I just thought you might have some suggestions. Keep up the good work.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Vern! Thanks for the note and the kind words. I really appreciate it.

      It sounds like you’re making great strides. Congrats on the 100-day streak, congrats on working through Easy Spanish Reader, congrats on the reading skills. It sounds like you’ve made awesome progress in four months. If you’re feeling a little frustration, that’s probably sign that you need to make some minor adjustments. But it’s usually also a sign that you’re making real progress, because you’re starting to be able to gauge your own abilities better and you’re becoming harder on yourself.

      It’s normal for your speaking to be lagging behind. I wrote an article about that with some detailed tips a couple weeks ago, which you can check out. Also, if you’re not able to produce much speech at all, my advice is to memorize five to ten phrases a day until you build up to 200 or so. Make these somewhat relevant to your life and interests, with stuff like “my name is,” “I live in (x),” “I am a teacher/banker/construction worker,” “Where is the bathroom?” etc. Just get used to saying stuff out loud and getting a feel for the patterns and rhythms. Later on you’ll be able to produce original sentences.

      If you feel like your listening is lagging behind your reading, I’m betting that your brain isn’t processing the language you know. Try listening to easier texts for a while. “Notes in Spanish” and “Coffee Break Spanish” have clearly spoken, easy content. I also like kids shows, like Dora la Exploradora or Pocoyo (if you have the patience for that). Listen to really easy stuff for three weeks and give your “listening brain” time to catch up with your “reading brain.”

      One other thing to try for listening: transcription. It seems like a silly drill, but in my experience it works. How? My guess is that it forces you to slow down and really listen, and then that helps you being able to recognize aural patterns. Instructions here: http://www.languagesurfer.com/2012/08/25/how-to-transcribe-an-essential-skill-in-foreign-language-learning/

      So if you’re up for it, try that for the next three weeks. Then please let me know how it goes!