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
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.
\nInstead 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.
\nWhen 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.
\nAlthough 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.
\n"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.
\nNot 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.
\n"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.
\nWhile 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.
\nCurrently 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.
\n"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."
\nTo 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.
\n"We hear it everyday, so although I couldn't understand or speak any English until this week and still can't really, I've certainly picked up and won't forget how to say `how are you' and reply `I'm fine, thank you,'" said Tainan City garbage truck driver Chen Shao-tai (陳紹台). "And of course next week there will be another phrase, which I probably won't forget either."
\nWhile the idea of free English language lessons for the masses has been lauded by the politicos as a way in which Tainan can became a truly international city, they are quick to point out that listening to the garbage truck is no way to learn the language properly.
\n"Obviously we're aware that it's impossible to learn English properly this way and still recommend going to school to study. And we certainly don't expect everyone in Tainan to become proficient," the mayor said. "But by offering them an English-speaking environment in which to interact we hope that it will lead to more residents taking an interest in English and attempting to communicate with foreigners instead of running away because they don't know what to say."
\nStill two years away, Tainan's hosting of the World Youth Baseball Championships in 2004 has left many in the government hoping that the free English lessons will see locals interacting more with the foreign fans and in turn make the competition even more successful.
\nThe idea isn't without it critics, however. Local language teachers such Karen Lien (連慧苑), an English instructor with the Hess Language School, sees the venture as more of a joke rather than beneficial.
\n"I don't think it will work. Okay, a few people might pick up a phrase or two, but you don't hang out at the garbage truck you toss you rubbish and leave," Lien said. "I really can't see it making much difference in the numbers and the ability of Tainan residents speaking English."
\nIt's not only English teachers who have been critical of the scheme. Members of Tainan's non-native English-speaking foreign population have also voiced their objections. With one Japanese national asking Hsieh why English was chosen over a multitude of other languages, including Japanese.
\n"The reason we chose English is simply because the central government's recent promotion of the English language," said the director of Tainan's environmental protection bureau. "While educational, it need not be taken too seriously. It's funny, but with a serious side. And obviously it's uniqueness means there is an emphasis on the feel-good factor. It gives people a reason to smile when they take their garbage out."
\nFor those who can't wait until garbage truck time to practice their English, beginning in October, the city government plans to make fliers printed with the monthly English lessons available from the garbage collectors on request.
\nWhether this will mean residents of Tainan will fast become the nation's leading speakers of the English language or simply create more garbage, however, remains to be seen.
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
PHOTO COURTESY OF TAINAN CITY GOVERNMENT
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