Mayor Bill de Blasio has signed into law the City Council bill that makes the English-language requirement for taxi drivers a dead letter.
Allowing applicants for taxi licenses to take the qualifying test in languages other than English is good news for immigrants — and that’s the stated reason for the change, to afford more job opportunities for the city’s polyglot population.
The question is, however: Is it good news for passengers?
Of course, some might wonder at the question, since the language spoken behind the wheel of any given taxi in New York City is anyway not likely to be English. An estimated 82 percent of the city’s 40,000 drivers were born outside the United States, in any of 167 countries, and one sometimes has the impression that any familiarity with English that was obtained in cramming for the test was long forgotten. So brush up your Bangla. (That’s the official language of Bangladesh, the native land of 24 percent of the city’s drivers, the largest contingent from any single country.)
Nevertheless, the new law will lower the bar even further. If, until now, drivers had to learn a minimum of English, even that will no longer be the case. True, the city is working on an educational program for drivers to teach them industry-specific English, but this is obviously an afterthought, a sop to skeptics of multilingualism.
The language change is in line with another change that makes it easier for people to get employment as taxi drivers, but at a price to the passenger. Last year, the traditional 25 questions on local geography was whittled down to a mere 10. In a city the size of New York, with its often bewildering street layouts (think boroughs), it’s hard to imagine how so few questions could test a person’s ability to navigate the place. The test designers say that with the advent of GPS, a driver no longer has to carry so much information in his head. But GPS has its limits, and is not a total substitute for actual knowledge.
A main argument for dropping the English requirement has been competition from Uber, whose drivers don’t have to know the language. It’s one of the reasons Yellow Cab drivers have been migrating to Uber. As of 2015, there were more Uber cars on local streets (14,088) than registered yellow taxis (13,587).
Why didn’t the city go in the other direction, making Uber give their drivers tests in English? That’s what London is doing. As of October 1, all cabbies in London from countries with a non-English-speaking majority will have to have passed an English proficiency exam to hold a license. The new rule was the result of traffic-stopping protests by the city’s veteran cab drivers who insisted on more regulation of Uber. Presumably, such a protest was a non-starter in New York, where the Yellow Cab drivers themselves don’t speak much English.
But that doesn’t mean that the language change here was universally applauded, even within the immigrant population.
Tainur Rahman, 38, of the Bronx, who has been driving a taxi for five years, said he was disappointed that the city was ending the test, because he thought drivers should be able to show they understand some basic English.
Hector Diaz, 37, a legal secretary who lives in Queens, agreed, saying it could jeopardize passenger safety if a driver did not speak any English. “If there is an emergency, how are they going to communicate with the passenger?” Mr. Diaz asked.
Pasang Sherpa, 40, agreed. “You have to communicate with the customer,” he said. “You’re not working in a kitchen. You’re driving a cab; you’re dealing with the public.”
This is an important point. We are not against helping immigrants find work. From our own experience, we are well-acquainted with the difficulties and hardships that immigrants face. Our parents and grandparents came to this country often without any English, and in their struggle for survival not all learned the language.
In many occupations, not knowing English is not a barrier. Whether it’s working in a kitchen, as Mr. Sherpa said, or in a tailor shop or a grocery, language need not be an obstacle, especially if the boss or the customers speak your native tongue, be it Yiddish, Spanish or Chinese.
But driving a taxi in New York City is different. Not only for the U.S.-born, but for people who come here from all over the world, from diplomats to asylum-seekers, the one common language between driver and passenger is often English. Even if the passenger can’t speak English, he knows the name of his destination, or has it written down by someone else.
Anxiety, even panic, can ensue, especially in an emergency, if the driver can’t communicate on the most basic level. If the driver can’t speak or read English, he and —more to the point — the passenger are lost.
If a customer doesn’t understand a salesman, he can always shop at a different store. But once he gets into a taxi, he’s at the mercy of the driver. That driver should at least speak English.