I’ve been self studying Chinese for just over 8 months now. I would like to share my experience with you and a few suggestions that I wish I knew in hindsight.
I’ve used the MIT Chinese course as my guide. I’m now on semester 3 of the Chinese program, which covers chapters 8 – 10. Chinese I covers chapters 1 – 4, and that is what I will refer to.
I’d especially like to highlight a few things written in the text, that I didn’t pay enough attention to in the beginning.
First download all of the material. I suggest downloading the entire book, not section by section, but by chapter. You can do that at: http://ocw.mit.edu/resources/res-21f-003-learning-chinese-a-foundation-course-in-mandarin-spring-2011/online-textbook/part-i-introduction-units-1-4-character-lessons-1-3/ You can find all related audio there as well.
Also download the material at the companion website: http://yalebooks.com/wheatley/
If you have access to a printer, print the book. I know, I like to save the trees too, but having a tangible book is much easier to study from. I got my book printed and bound in a ring binder for very cheap.
Now, find a Chinese friend. You will need a friend to listen to you and correct your pronunciation. If you don’t have any Chinese friends in your area, you can find them online. The best place to look is on QQ. QQ is the Chinese facebook / skype / msn. There are millions of Chinese people on there that want to make friends with people outside of China. I haven’t had to do this, so perhaps someone in the OpenStudy community can share their experiences of how to find a Chinese friend online.
Once you have a friend, go through the sounds and symbols section until you can confidently distinguish between and produce the sounds of Chinese. If you are doing this via internet, you could have your partner download the material as well and they can follow along with you as you read the pronunciation. If for time constraints you are unable to have virtual face time with a partner I suggest using www.soundcloud.com to post up audio recordings of your Chinese and send the clips to a friend for corrections. On that service they can post timed comments.
Having good pronunciation (including producing the tones), is very important, as it will allow you to study on your own. Though focusing exclusively on pronunciation would be very boring, so don’t get too hung up on the sounds and symbols chapter.
Do the Character lessons! I’ve met many foreigners that speak Chinese, but can’t read more than a dozen characters. Learning to read will help you express yourself in new ways. Learning the characters also gives you important insight into how Chinese words are formed. When you see a new word composed of two characters you know it will give you special insight into how words are composed in Chinese.
Learning to read makes you a more eloquent speaker. Reading in your native language exposes to new ways of expressing ideas. This is the same for any language, including Chinese.
Furthermore, the character sections are designed to review material from the pinyin sections. And in the later chapters the Character lessons introduce some grammar points and vocabulary.
The last thing, practice! Force yourself to sit down and study for 15 minutes each day, once you get past that 15 minute mark, sometimes an hour or two hour study session will follow quite effortlessly.