Should Private Hire Drivers Undergo Language Tests?

Uber doesn’t think so. But Automologist LING’s recent experience with a taxi driver shows that being able to communicate with your driver is incredibly important.

Over the weekend, I had an exasperating experience trying to explain over the phone to the taxi driver, whom I had hailed using GRAB, the South East Asian ride-hailing service, where to pick me up. Perhaps a bit of explanation is needed for those who have never been to Malaysia. The multiracial population speaks a slew of languages to get by everyday. And though I am relatively fluent in our national language, I could not for the life of me, on that night, remember how to say “across the road” in Malay. I could have articulated it in English or precisely described it in Chinese. Just not Malay. Which is the only language the taxi driver spoke. It took about 20 minutes before he and I found each other, by which time we were both frustrated and annoyed with each other.

So, when I read that Uber is trying to overturn a rule in the UK that requires private hire drivers to pass an English Language test, I think that maybe Uber is making a BIG MISTAKE.

Last year, then London mayor Boris Johnson announced that drivers from non-English speaking countries were required to pass an English test that comprised of reading, writing and listening components. While Uber initially had supported the idea that London drivers had to be able to converse in English, it later said that the proposed tests were too demanding. Last month, Uber filed a legal challenge in London and after a judicial review, Uber is now taking the TfL to court.

In other countries and regions, Uber partners with Duolingo, an online language learning service. Drivers can gain a proficiency certification at Duolingo’s online Test Centre; I use the word “proficiency” loosely here, because the test costs just US$20 and it takes no more than 20 minutes to complete. It all sounds cursory and unreliable to me.

And of course, if I were a driver of one of the traditional black cabs, I’d be miffed. Black cab drivers are required to undergo a comprehensive test called “The Knowledge”, which takes at least two years to prepare for, and requires memorising every street there is in London. Private car drivers, like Uber drivers, are not held up to the same strict standards.

In my case, we are in Malaysia, so the language skill required is Malay. Okay, so the person who was incompetent was me. But it made me realise how important communication was, even in a brief exchange between taxi driver and passenger. After I got into the taxi, I still had to describe to him where my destination was, and navigate part of the way. Luckily, all the words I needed came to me then.

So, good luck, Uber. If you want to make it easier for non-English-speaking people to become drivers in the country where the English language was born, then you’ll just have a lot of drivers and users who cannot find each other or get lost together. Oh boy, what great fun that’ll be.

image: Independent

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