Let me introduce Shanghai Da Zhong Taxi Driver Number 178824. He’s a chap with a nervous smile and a slightly anxious disposition, and he passes the time at traffic lights and between fares by studying a bit of English. Like many taxi drivers, he figures that learning English could potentially make his life easier with all those foreign passengers and even bring about unexpected opportunities. English is seen as a kind of passport to better work and higher pay, perhaps as a private driver.
But driver 178824 isn’t interested in any old basic ‘hello, goodbye, turn left, turn right’ English. He has decided to concentrate only on words that he finds intensely interesting. Written on flash cards, in alphabetic order, the English word is followed by the Chinese equivalent, and the phonetic pronunciation. Not quite what I was expecting when he handed them over for me to see.
His lists run to the medical (haemuresis, myocarditis, hepatitis), the political (Hague, hakenkreuz – the German word meaning swastika, American consulate) and the esoteric (hanky-panky, mercurial).
Other than the listed words, which he read phonetically and slowly, he spoke not a single word of English. I was both intrigued and enormously impressed. Unlike most language students, he had decided to just jump right in at the deep end, and see where it led him.
I gave him a short list of H words of my own – hocus pocus, hoi polloi, hurricane and hegemony. And another of M words – mysterious, mythical, mercenary and machiavellian. Wonder what he’ll make of those?