I've been meaning to record myself in a Chinese conversation, and I finally did a recording successfully about a week ago. I started studying right around August 30 of 2012. So right now it's 13 1/2 months later. This gives you a sense of what I've managed to accomplish in that time. This is a totally unscripted discussion on Skype with a woman who lives in China, with English text added.
I think it's pretty good. There's plenty of mistakes happening here. It's a bit cringe inducing as I go through it myself after the fact, transcribing it, because I see spots where we're talking past each other or I listen as I pretty much butcher the tones throughout. But that's just part of the process of course. There's no other way to learn but to make mistakes over and over again.
Some people have accomplished a lot more in 13 months. Others have done a lot less. My feeling is it's all about doing the work. Work more than me and you'll be better than me, work less and you'll be worse. Generally speaking.
My method, if you're curious, was the following. I started with Pimsleur, which was free at my library. That took about 3.5 months. Then I did a program called Assimil. That took about 4 or 5 months. I thought both were quite good, but other methods might work better.
Throughout the process I spoke to Chinese people whenever I had the opportunity, trying out the things I'd learned. I've had so much fun with that. You might think people get annoyed or don't want to be bothered. With rare exceptions the opposite is true. Chinese people are happy to see you trying to learn their language and very willing to help. Part of what has been enjoyable about this is not just getting better, but meeting such great people.
After Assimil I tried to increase my spoken use of the language. I joined a local meetup group. That has been great, not just because of the learning but also the friendships. I have tried to do more of the Skype exchanges. How they work is you spend half the time on the language you are interested in and half the time teaching English to your partner. That's also been fun. If you prefer you can pay a teacher and spend the entire time learning your target language, which I've also done. For me it's been something like $9 an hour.
I continue working my way through a new program post Assmil, now using an online service called FluentU. I can't say enough good things about it. They take native content, like commercials, movie clips, music videos, all found on YouTube, transcribe it for you as it plays, then create a quiz that exposes you to the new words and tests you to make sure you understand the dialogue or message. This is a paid service. It was free when I started because it was in beta, but now it's something like $15 a month. Highly recommended if you are interested and the money isn't problematic.
My tentative plan is to continue studying Chinese until I reach what is called a B2 spoken level. Sometimes that's called Upper Intermediate. You can read at Wikipedia what that means. For me I mean that in the sense of the spoken ability, not written. I'm not doing much with writing at this point, though that may change. Then I want to start studying Spanish. These are two languages I'd love to understand.
Let me know what you think.