From “Buenos días” to “Ni hao,” Madrid’s taxi drivers expand their linguistic skills

Initiative aims to teach basic terms and non-verbal communication skills to give Chinese tourists a warmer welcome

Jingru Bai teaches Madrid taxi drivers Chinese.
Jingru Bai teaches Madrid taxi drivers Chinese.JAIME VILLANUEVA (EL PAÍS VÍDEO)

Around 10 taxi drivers sit patiently and attentively, looking curious, in the Madrid classroom of Jingru Bai, a teacher of Chinese language and culture. "Nǐ hǎo" (“Hello” in English) is the term they’ve learned best so far – which will help them sound warmer and friendlier when welcoming Chinese tourists to the Spanish capital. In addition to new words, Bai is also teaching them gestures and nonverbal methods of communication that will likely be familiar to the tourists, such as avoiding physical and direct eye contact. In 2015, 110,000 Chinese tourists visited Madrid alone– a 41% increase on the year before – while 400,000 visited Spain overall, according to Chinese tour operator Chinese Friendly International.

Spain's highest-spending tourists

Chinese tourists spend an average of €1,800 on a trip to Spain, €140 more per day than other travelers, according to tour operator Chinese Friendly International.

While in Madrid they tend to visit the capital's most important museums (the Prado, the Reina Sofía, and the Thyssen) along with major monuments such as the Royal Palace. They also frequent the luxury shops in the upscale Salamanca neighborhood. Most taxi-users are “experienced travelers” visiting Spain for the second time.

This recent increase in the number of Chinese tourists has led the company MyTaxi to offer language and etiquette lessons to its drivers, many of whom have been excited to undertake the project. “I want to be able to treat them as pleasantly as possible, so that’s why I’ve come to this class today, since there are times where you don’t really know how to interact with them,” says Agustín Muñoz, a 53-year-old driver, who attended his first lesson in July.

In addition to the one-hour in-person class, which drivers voluntarily attend to learn the basics of Chinese history, culture and language, they can also elect to take a 15-session online course to continue honing their language skills. “The initiative is trying to encourage a more personalized treatment of Asian tourists,” explains Antonio Cantalapiedra, CEO of MyTaxi in Spain and Portugal.

Taxi drivers are advised never to say ‘four’ because it’s pronounced almost exactly the same as the Chinese word for ‘death’

“I have learned completely new things that I had no idea about before, like the numbers, which they count from one to 10 with the fingers of just one hand,” explains 52-year-old Germán Peña, who during the class took photos of every explanatory slide with his cellphone. “I saved all the notes on my phone so I can  use them later as reminders at home,” he adds. Professor Bai emphasizes the need to understand the numbers to be able to communicate the price of the ride. While Bai explains, the drivers’ faces display surprise at certain moments of the lesson, such as the advice that they never speak the word for “four” because it’s pronounced almost exactly the same as the word for “death.”

The initiative began last year and has been adopted by other cities such as Seville and Barcelona. Last week saw the first session of the summer here in Madrid, but the course will continue into the coming weeks. Among the newcomers, returning student Esteban López is already applying what he’s learned to greet his passengers: “They feel more comfortable. I don’t make any gestures that they could interpret as obscene, or that they wouldn’t like. They just appreciate the gesture.”

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English version by Allison Light.

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