New York’s yellow-cab drivers no longer required to pass English test (The Guardian)

A new law that streamlines licensing requirements for different kinds of drivers has done away with the longstanding English proficiency test for taxi drivers, which supporters say will eliminate a barrier to the profession for immigrants, who make up 96% of the 144,000 cabbies in the city.

Drivers must still pass tests on such details as driving rules and where they can pick up passengers.

The end of the English test is also a recognition of how technology has transformed the business. Many drivers now rely on computer navigation programs rather than verbal directions to reach a destination. For-hire drivers for app-based services such as Uber have never had to take an English test.

Critics of the change, including some drivers, say a good command of English is a basic requirement for a job that involves communicating with passengers and reading street signs.

“If you’re going to work in this country serving the population which is majority made up of American citizens that speak English, you probably should learn how to speak English,” said Tanya Crespo, a tourist visiting Manhattan from Newport, North Carolina.

I don’t get irate about Pressing 1 for English. I am not worried that immigrants aren’t going to assimilate. I don’t get mad if I’m in line and the people in front of me are speaking a language I don’t understand. I only complain about Indian customer support when it actually makes customer support more difficult.

But on this? I agree with Crespo. I could favor getting rid of the requirement if it’s determined to be a waste of time and money. But to lower the barrier of entry? For New York Taxis? Because if they’re really interested in lowering barriers, I have some suggestions.

Back in reality, though, the taxi market is very constricted in New York. This may be right or this may be wrong, but it is what it is. We limit the number of taxis we allow on the streets for a variety of reasons, including preventing the oversaturation of the market. In other words, barriers for the sake of barriers. We only want a limited number of suppliers and, by extension, drivers. And if we’re going to limit the number of drivers, after things like bad criminal records and knows the rules of the road, language is a pretty decent requirement.

Most of the time you may not need to be able to communicate with the driver, but sometimes you do. And since the number of drivers on the road is limited anyway, it seems more than reasonable to require for that contingency. “What about markets” simply doesn’t apply here, and an argument about “Would you rather have a driver who can’t speak English or no driver at all?” doesn’t work, when we’re limiting the number of drivers anyway. (As an aside, this also raises questions about immigrants doing “jobs Americans don’t do”… but that’s pretty tangential.

Along these lines, I don’t care about Uber or Lyft. There we are talking about a tradeoff between the number of drivers and the ability to communicate with them easily. A language requirement might lead to less supply, which might be a tradeoff not worth considering. So I’d leave it to them to decide. If enough people get angry about non-English speaking Uber drivers picking them up, then they can revise. If nobody does and they will simply take the availability, then the people have spoken. (Provided, of course, that language requirements don’t transition into a legal zone of “unlawful discrimination.”)Photo by robnguyen01


Category: Road

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

6 Responses to Language Matters

  1. Murali says:

    English tests are one of those things that are heavily gamed. Ideally we want the people who we interact with to understand us and we want to be able to understand them. If english tests actually did work that wouldn’t really be an objection to them. For a while now, migrant workers to Singapore have been required to pass an english test. But, there is a lot of dishonesty in this and lots of migrant workers are still unable to understand basic instructions nor are they able to effectively communicate in english. If, given actual conditions, english tests as administered by don’t work, then getting rid of them would be better.

    Companies should of course be allowed to administer their own tests, but again the wisdom of doing so depends on the size of the problem and the efficacy with which these tests screen out people who are unable to communicate effectively in english.

    • trumwill says:

      This is reasonable. I’d probably have responded differently if the rationale was that it wasn’t weeding people out (and thus a waste of money) than that it was providing barriers to a consciously barriered industry.

  2. Peter says:

    Then there was the seafood-loving tourist in Boston who asked the taxi driver where he could get scrod, and was complimented on his use of the subjunctive tense.

  3. Kazzy says:

    So, my first thought was, “They need to read street signs.” But is that really true? Traffic signs use color and shape as much as language. That feels like a “BUT SAFETY!” justification.

    As I turned over communication in my head, I thought about how the market would correct for this. If a cabby was so non-communicative as to cause a problem, eventually he’d be weeded out.

    But as you point out, the medallion system really screws with the market.

    So I’m okay with a language test provided it works. Contrary to Murali, I worry about the test being gamed another way: asking driving to know complex rules/words that they will NEVER need

  4. SFG says:

    Eh, I disagree with you. It’s a country, it needs a language. Otherwise we have a Quebec-ish situation at best and a Belgium-ish situation at worst. (Well, OK, worse things can happen, but haven’t since 1865.)

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