I'm very excited as I've just received confirmation that I will start my Chinese course on 23 February. For absolute beginners.
And I know why I'm so excited about it: I have never visited (or lived in) a place where knowing the local language would be more useful!
You notice the language barrier as soon as you get out of the airport and need a taxi to the city centre. In general, taxi drivers here do not speak a word of English! So you THINK that you can just say "Sheraton Hotel" or "the Hilton" or where ever you're going but no! Taxi drivers know places by their Chinese names - not by how we pronounce them in English. A good example is IKEA. You can try as hard as you want, but if you don't know that IKEA is pronounced "Yi Jia Jia Ju" in Chinese, you won't get anywhere! It is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY to always have a piece of paper for the taxi driver with the place you're going to written down in Chinese. There are also a number of small practical books and apps available to expats and tourists in Beijing with a list of hotels, sights, restaurants, compounds etc. translated into Chinese. Also, almost all hotels have a card you can always carry with you and show to taxi drivers. You can see some examples in the pictures below.
Then there are the shops and services. I have surrendered to pointing, indicating, drawing...whatever. I often have to leave the supermarket without what I was looking for because I'm not able to explain what I need. A recent example was hair removal cream :-)
Both Rebecca and I have been to the hairdresser's here. That's an experience! They are extremely kind and helpful and somehow love to deal with western costumers. We communicate via an app! I will type in for example "how much for a haircut" in English and it will be translated into Chinese for them. They will then type in the reply in Chinese and it's translated into English (-ish) for me. It's just part of the fun.
Of course we also come across Chinese people who speak English very well! Without knowing English, they wouldn't have been able to do the jobs they're doing. Examples are: the front desk staff at the hotel, the lovely Nicole from the real estate agency, the staff at "SOS international" hospital, some staff at restaurants in tourist areas and of course local staff at the kids' international school.
I'm motivated to learn Chinese. Not only because the kids are learning it so fast that I feel they're breathing down my neck :-) - but I strongly believe that you can get closer to a country and its people by making an effort to learn the language. Now I've said it so let's get started!