I was having a conversation with my good friend Dr. Ben Penglase in, of all things, a California style burrito restaurant in Brazil. Ben is an Anthropologist and examining how California beach, surf, skate, and ska music culture migrated all the way to the south of Brazil and culminated in a restaurant called Moochachos is likely more in his realm of expertise than mine. But on this particular night I brought up to him what I have been jokingly calling The Uber Method of language learning.
According to the Uber country list, the service is currently operating in over 80 different countries. The Uber Method of language learning is simple. Once you have reached an intermediate level of language mastery, meaning you can string together basic sentences in the present tense, you are prepared to start engaging your Uber drivers in conversation every chance you get. When else are you stuck in a very confined space with a native speaker of your target language who literally has to speak with you?
In my experience, this works particularly well with Brazilians. It seems that almost all the Brazilians I have encountered have a cultural necessity to engage in conversation with a person in a confined space and that can be a good or bad thing. Take an elevator for example. On my way to class Mondays and Wednesdays I have to take an elevator at about 8:30 AM to the top floor of fairly tall building. Early morning encounters in your target language are the worst. Your brain has barely started working in your native language and you find yourself trying to avoid interacting out of sheer anxiety. Only here, this seems to be impossible. You will be asked about the weather, the weekend, what a nice morning it is, where you’re headed, how classes are, or where you’re from if you cannot mask your accent well enough. I brought this up to one of my Brazilian professors and they laughed but agreed. For many Brazilians it’s almost seen as rude in such situations to not say something.
For learning your language via Uber, this is an excellent cultural trait. If you are in a capital city, as I am in Florianópolis, you have the added benefit of meeting many drivers who are from different parts of the country. This gives you access to different accents, different political view points, different generational views, and to a lesser extent different economic backgrounds. I point out that last note, because Ben pointed it out to me. To drive Uber you have to meet certain requirements like very basically owning a car and not-so-basically owning a fairly new car. This necessitates that the driver be at least middle-class of some stripe and limits your interaction with other socio-economic groups, if that is your aim. Despite this, I have found the other advantages to be invaluable.
Why are hearing different accents and political views so important? Because, as I described in a previous post, Brazil is huge. Knowing the different accents and what regions they come from is intrinsic to the Brazilian Portuguese experience and hearing all these interesting ways to speak Portuguese is half the fun. And as a second, or third, or whatever, language learner you get to choose which accent you prefer to use. How cool is that? As far politics, Brazilians are not shy about sharing their views. Listening to what they have to say can really increase your knowledge of the regional concerns that exist in a country and it also serves to deepen your vocabulary in your target language.
Given that Uber operates in so many countries , the service provides an excellent dual service to the language learner. Of course this has some limits. Maybe you’re in a city that doesn’t have Uber operations. Maybe the public transportation is better or significantly cheaper and this can vary by situation. The Uber Method, as I see it, is never wasting an opportunity to practice and learn when and if you do use Uber abroad, which I highly recommend. Don’t let your language level or anxiety get the best of you. Try it out!