Here are a few things I've done and a few that others have told me about that I have had all intention of doing, but just didn't. I'm a gung ho starter and a pathetically horrible finisher.
1. Online Learning. Listen to things like Chinese Pod. This is my favorite. They have beginner, intermediate, upper intermediate, and advanced lessons that you can listen to on an ipod. They start with a 5-6 minute dialogue and then talk about the new vocabulary or cultural issues in each dialogue. The whole lesson is not more than 20 minutes. They have more resources than you'll know what to do with. In theory, I listen to this when I run. "When I run..." is the key to that sentence. But you could put these on in the house and let your kids listen to most of them. Or put it on while cooking dinner or folding clothes. A few others that people have used are:
2. Househelpers and College Students. If you have a house helper, talk to them when you go into the kitchen to grab water, chat at lunch with her, ask her a question about her family. All these 2-3 minute conversations keep Chinese from being buried too deep into your brain. If you don't have a househelper, have a college student come over once a week and play with your kids. You can sit with them, listen, and join in the conversation. Most college girls, at least in China, love being around foreign kids. And if you throw them a bone with a few English words here and there, they won't mind coming back on a consistent basis. Even when these college girls can speak English, try to speak Chinese with them.
3. Characters. Oh buddy...characters. Learning Chinese characters feels like getting bangs. At first you feel excited, trendy, and totally in charge. Then, day 2, when you have to do your own hair. You feel sweaty, frustrated, and you give up by just putting a hat on. At least...that's how I feel when it comes to characters-frustrated and surrendered.
My husband uses these flash cards: Anki As you study, you gauge how difficult that word was to remember. The harder the word for you, the more often you will see it in the course of the week. There are also:
Chinese Flash Cards,
Semanda (for kids and beginners),
a long list of apps,
Skritter (popular app that's simple, clear, has example sentences, user friendly),
Mental Case (syncs with Skritter. Includes speaking and listening applications)
Another great tool is the Pleco app with OCR. Pleco is an all-incompassing app that you can write words, use several dictionaries, look up via the pinyin, and tons more. Within Pleco is an add-on feature called OCR that recognizes characters as you point your phone over and capture the image.
This post has a great explanation of how it all works.
Here are a few others:
* When you find yourself needing to find out how to say things like, "Desperate Housewives," in Chinese (yes, unfortunately, this does happen), just type it into Baidu and it will link you up with the Chinese. It's kind of a Chinese Google, but works great for finding more pop culture types of vocabulary. But you will need to use this word to convince your Chinese college friends that all Americans don't live this way...because they think we do.
*My favorite online dictionary is NCIKU. I know there are lots, but we like the thoroughness of this one. It gives the pinyin, example sentences, how to write the character, pronunciation, and more.
*Actually not throw out those advertisements that young people hand you as you walk down the street. Keep them and look through for simple words like pork, broom, or cabbage.
*Make it a game for you and your kids. Take 50 characters and put them into a scene of some type. Maybe a waterfall or a long path. Once you hit the end, your last character opens up to a surprise for you and the kids.
*When you text friends (even ones who can speak English) use Chinese characters. If you turn your phone onto the setting where the characters are automatically linked together, you'll be amazed at what you'll learn. You'll also avoid accidentally asking your friend to marry you.
*Watch Chinese cartoons with your kids.
Whew. That's overwhelming. The biggest thing I would add too is DON'T COMPARE. Not to your husband, that college student that's been in China for 3 months, or to other wives you might know. It will rob your joy. Every time.
Keep at it. Remain steady. It's gonna be worth it.