Well, it's already February and it dawned on me that I have less than a month to get my Japanese and Chinese language skills up to a level at which I feel comfortable roaming those countries alone. My husband is going to Asia for business and, as is common for us, I am tagging along. When he is working, I explore the area alone or meet up with friends. When he is not working and on weekends, we run around together, and if English isn't the official language of the land, he looks to me to speak for him to the locals - he does this on our vacations as well (he usually has a translator with him when he is working). It's not a bad gig for me, really, and I enjoy it quite a bit. I'm just getting a little lost at the moment because our next trip involves Japan, China and Hong Kong and I'm not exactly proficient at any of the Asian languages.
To be fair, I did learn a bit of conversational Japanese in 2006 for a few weeks in Tokyo and Kyoto. What little Japanese I learned was enough to successfully navigate the cities and speak with shop clerks, drivers and waiters without much problem. After the first week in Japan, we found out from a colleague living in Tokyo that the vast majority of spouses who accompany their spouse to Japan from the U.S. request personal guides. Personally, that isn't my idea of fun.
I find that it's worth the time (if you have it) and effort to try to get a little bit of the local language under your belt and go it alone with your own list of what you want to see and experience. You definitely need to keep personal safety in mind, as there are a lot of places where it is not advisable to roam alone - but when you're visiting a relatively safe place, it's fun to go it alone. Some people are into tours and groups and personal guides - I'm just not one of them. I really love running around foreign cities and visiting their interesting sites but also being able to duck into little cafes, pubs and shops whenever I feel the urge. So far, I've been fortunate to find very polite local people who appreciate my attempts at speaking with them in their language. I've also been able to see what I've wanted to see and not what somebody else thought I should see and I've done it on my own schedule.
So - here I sit on a Saturday afternoon trying to refresh my conversational Japanese with a Pimsleur audio CD, a phrase book and a Black and Tan. (I'm not sure that the beer is helping the process, but it doesn't seem to be hurting it yet). I think I can get reacquainted with enough of this language by Tuesday to move on to trying to learn some Chinese. I'm very intimidated by Chinese because of the “four tones” and the scary number of definitions to the same word, depending on which tone is used. I figure, though, that if all I'm trying to do is learn enough of the verbal language to run around Beijing or Shanghai alone for a few days, I should be able to knock that out by the end of the month. That's the plan at least. *gulp*