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Cabbies try to master basic English
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Never would a cabbie in Beijing have imagined he would drive for the royals of Europe or CEOs from Fortune 500 companies.

But these are among the very guests about 300 local taxi drivers - dressed in uniforms, wearing white gloves and driving coaches and cars - will escort during next month's Olympics.

"We're driving for VIPs," a taxi driver surnamed Li said, with "VIP" pronounced in English.

"I might have the chance to drive for Bill Gates," Li said. "You know Bill Gates, right?"

Hired by Jet Set Sports, the official hospitality package sponsor of the 2008 US Olympic team, the drivers will provide their services from the moment guests arrive in Beijing to the minute they depart.

Li, who has been driving taxis for 23 years, has been studying English every weekend since late last year.

At a class on Saturday morning, about 50 drivers, all in their 30s and 40s, parroted the words of their teacher, a Canadian Chinese.

The teacher pointed to the word "hundreds" on the blackboard.

"We can earn many hundreds of yuan when the Olympic Games comes," a taxi driver at the front row said in Chinese, managing to say just the word "hundreds" in English.

As well as English language, the course covers manners and Olympic knowledge.

The 300 drivers were selected from 5,000 applicants, mostly by the levels of English proficiency and their driving skills.

"They've improved greatly," Pang Xiaodong, from Shouqi (China) Auto Lease Alliance, which is supervising the training, said.

The training helps boost these taxi drivers' confidence and morale, he said.

"It is a process of self-discovery of their esteem, passion and confidence."

Drivers who used to be embarrassed about talking to foreign passengers now open up, he claimed.

Meanwhile, XinAo Translation Service Center has an alternative for drivers who cannot speak English.

"When the passengers get in the car, the drivers can use the system to dial XinAo up and interpreters will talk to the passenger directly," Lori Cheung, who jointly launched the business with British businessman Richard Craig, said.

(China Daily July 23, 2008)

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