Nothing boosts one’s ego in the early days of learning Chinese as conversations with taxi drivers. I’m sure we all have had this experience; you step into a cab and spit out your address (carefully memorized, of course), the cabbie subsequently nods and tells you how good your Chinese is.
A bit later, once you have more Mandarin under your belt, you begin to master what I call “taxi Chinese”. You learn the four or five questions the driver will ask and practice your responses. Before long, these conversations become so automatic that to an untrained listener, you’re speaking perfect Chinese.
Even if you’re aware that your Chinese is painfully limited, these short taxi rides give an unbridled boost of confidence. Often, this confidence will evaporate instantly when you step into the bank and find yourself unable to communicate at all, but at least for a brief moment you dished like Da Shan.
I bring up taxi conversations when people ask me if I’m fluent in Chinese. Fluency, of course, is notoriously tricky to measure. In taxis, I’m fluent. In restaurants, too. In simple conversatins with Chinese people, sure. But if one of these people were to ask me about the air-speed velocity of an African swallow (obligatory Monty Python reference), they might as well be speaking Navajo.
So I propose that linguists replace the term “fluency” with “flexibility”. Speaking for myself, I’m very comfortable discussing language, weather, food, geography, and a few other subjects. With politics, current events, or history, my speech is more broken but still effective. On subjects like science and technology, I can hardly communicate at all.
Breaking my speaking ability down this way helps me understand my weaknesses in Chinese, and so I can go out and target my study to areas in which my vocabulary and fluency are lacking. This isn’t always easy (or fun), but for a little boost I can always just jump into a cab.