English small talk is big challenge for Beijing cabbies

Beijing's taxi drivers have a lot on their plate at the moment. As well as struggling to implement a raft of new instructions about how they should behave for foreign visitors during the Olympics and dealing with an 18 per cent increase in fuel prices, the Beijing cabbie also has to learn some pretty complicated small talk to appease foreign guests arriving for the games.

A taxi supplement in The Beijing News contained a number of key phrases for cabbies ahead of the impending arrival of half a million foreigners for the games, which begin on 8 August.

Alongside the more usual English expressions, such as "Is this seat taken?", was more topical chit-chat, including: "Did you know China raised petrol prices for the first time in 18 months the other day? Analysts say it is because of the rising cost of oil around the world." Quite a mouthful in any language.

Beijing is home to 66,000 licensed cabs, compared to 19,000 taxis in London, and one of the great joys of living in the city is the easy availability of taxis at all hours of the day.

One of the first things you hear when taking a Beijing taxi is a cheerful woman's voice exclaiming in English: "Welcome to take Beijing taxi!" but beyond that, the driver's English rarely stretches beyond "bye bye", and occasionally a knowledge of numbers.

Taxi companies in Beijing have equipped some vehicles with translation machines and it is a common sight to find drivers listening to English-language cassettes in their cars late at night while waiting for a fare. Now, the city's 90,000 cabbies are being officially encouraged to learn phrases about the well-known NBA basketball player Yao Ming as well as the vocabulary to welcome foreigners to the Olympic capital.

It's a tough city in which to make a living as a cabbie. Fares are 10 yuan (74p) for the first three kilometres (almost two miles) and 2 yuan per kilometre thereafter. Monthly wages are between 2,000 and 4,000 yuan.

So there were loud rumblings of discontent when the government increased fuel prices by 18 per cent last week after resisting the pressure of soaring global oil prices for weeks. It promised subsidies to vulnerable groups such as taxi drivers. The Finance Ministry insists the subsidy should be paid out quickly to ensure social stability.

Last year, the government introduced a 12-point code for cabbies, which had strict rules on hygiene and manners – no sleeping in your cab, no smoking and no spitting. Male drivers have to look sharp (so no long hair) while women had to avoid chunky earrings and tight-fitting clothes.

A group of 3,000 "Golden Taxi Drivers" will provide transport for the Olympics. They all need to have 10 or more years of driving experience and pass English tests.

The drive to improve cabbies' English is part of a broader goal to improve English around Beijing. Last week, the authorities announced that "government-abused chicken" was off the menu. Instead, following a move to introduce standard dish translations, diners can ask for plain old "Kung Pao chicken". "Chicken without a sexual life" is also off, replaced by the sadly prosaic "steamed pullet". Your cab driver should be able to help you order.