Sat, Sep 07, 2002 - Page 16 News List

Tainan's garbage is fine, thank you

It's a dirty job, but somebody has to teach the nation to speak English and Tainan's garbage collectors, with their big yellow trucks, appear to have what it takes to spread the word, and the odd sentence pattern or two

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER

Mayor of Tainan, Hsu Tain-tsair, center, and director of Tainan's environmental protection bureau, Hsieh Shi-jie, clapping, meet with garbage disposal workers at the start of a program that will have the city's garbage trucks ringing out brief English lessons in lieu of the traditional reworking of Beethoven


Households in three of Tainan City's largely residential districts have found that their friendly neighborhood garbage trucks are collecting trash to a different tune these days.

Instead of an off beat re-working of Beethoven or any one of a dozen ostentatious tunes befitting the Benny Hill Show, residents across the city are tossing out their waste to refrains of basic conversational English.

When the first garbage trucks to be incorporated into the scheme took the streets of Tainan on Monday, the dulcet tones of "How are you?" and "I'm fine. Thank you" sounded the beginning of the nation's -- if not the world's -- first foreign language-teaching trash collection program.

Although originally an idea brought up in a private conversation between Tainan City Mayor, Hsu Tain-tsair (許添財) and his wife earlier this year, the city government has spent the past three months preparing for the unique venture.

"We got together with teachers and members of the city government's education bureau and came up with a series of conversational dialogues that we felt were simple yet important," Hsu told the Taipei Times. "We created enough material for nearly a year's worth of English lessons." Changing on a weekly basis and lasting roughly five seconds, the taped conversations are repeated half a dozen times during the trucks' five minute-long pick-up stops throughout the city's southern, western and Annan districts; the only three districts currently included in the scheme.

Not that resident's of Tainan City's central and eastern districts with a hankering for free language lessons need feel discriminated against. It's not that the city government feels the intricacies of the English language are too advanced for them, it is instead merely a case of demographics.

"It's a question of balancing routes, how long the trucks stay in one particular spot and the number of people using the trucks. In the city center the trucks have fewer stops, stay put in one place for lengthy periods of time and see less residential traffic." explained Hsieh Shi-jie (謝世傑), director of Tainan's environmental protection bureau. "In the areas currently included in the scheme, the truck's routes include over a dozen pickup points, which means we can reach a lot of people." According to the most recent census taken by Tainan City Government, the city's population currently stands at 743,487 people, 485,551 of whom live in the three districts covered by the scheme.

While the idea is proving popular with the general public, with comments ranging from "it's a good idea" to "it beats that awful repetitive music," it's not only the number of districts covered by the scheme that presently limits the free English lessons.

Currently only nine of the city's yellow garbage trucks are airing simple conversational English. This number, however, is set to increase soon, giving even more residents the opportunity to hone their English-language skills.

"We plan to have at least 24 trucks running the English lessons in October," Hsieh said. "And of course, if it continues to prove popular this number could increase and eventually include all the city's garbage trucks."

To prove how easy it is for residents with no previous knowledge of the English language to learn the simple phrases, Tainan's mayor held an impromptu examination on Tuesday. The test was hailed a huge success, with six garbage truck workers being sent to the top of the class after replying to the mayor's "How are you?" in heavily accented, but correct English.

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